This is Love Displayed

When did you first hear about the death of Jesus? When did you hear the word “crucified” for the first time? What were you told it all meant?

Who told you about Jesus? How did you feel then? How did it form your beliefs, or challenge them? What is your theology built upon?

I invite you to go back to the beginning. To your first memories of the story of Jesus dying on the cross. Spend a minute remembering, reconnecting yourself to that time in your life. Whether you consider yourself a follower of Jesus or not, I assume you’ve heard about him. Go back there… whether it was 50 years ago or 5 minutes ago, think back to how you were introduced to this story…

We looked at Mark’s account of the crucifixion story on Sunday (Mark 15:21-32). I think it’s safe to say that the story has become very familiar to most of us. As has the way in which we hear it. For most of us, we heard something about Jesus as children. And our understanding of who he is, who God is, and who we are in light of the story began to develop upon that first hearing. Whether we were aware of it or not, those earliest messages were lodged deeply into our minds, and all future messages would be either accepted or rejected based on how they aligned or competed with what we heard first.

So… What did you hear? And, how have your beliefs been built around what you first heard? Has your understanding grown or changed? Do you cling to one right way to believe? How do you feel when your beliefs are challenged or threatened? When someone presents a worldview that is completely contrary to what you believe to be the “right” way? What if I told you were wrong? About all of it? Is your heart beating faster even now, as you read these words? Yes?

Then you know how many felt when they encountered Jesus’ preaching. That feeling in your chest, the heat that is climbing up your neck and into your cheeks–the crowds that Jesus spoke to during his ministry could relate. Those who shouted “Crucify him!” probably felt the same heat–a heat that led to anger, rage, and eventually, violence and murder.

I know the feeling–I think it’s safe to say that we all do. It’s easy to get caught up in dualistic thinking. Black and white, right and wrong… And once we “know” what is “right”, we will defend it–often, at all costs–against what we, by default, deem “wrong”.

Before Jesus began his ministry, the Jewish people knew what was right. They lived according to the Law of Moses, the ten commandments, and the other 600+ commandments that were written into the Hebrew scriptures. They were highly religious people who were waiting for their promised Messiah–the one who would come and fulfill all of their expectations. He would be a conquering king who would free them from Roman oppression. He would enact retributive justice against their enemies and his military might and political power would be superior to any the world had ever seen. Never mind that prophecy painted a picture of a humble, servant king–they had heard from their earliest days that a king was coming who would rescue them. And so they waited, longing for this king.

Jesus burst onto the scene proclaiming an upside-down kingdom in which the meek, humble, poor, broken, sick, and marginalized were elevated while the rich, powerful, and righteous were brought low.

The blood of many boiled. Their hearts raced. Their palms got sweaty. The lump of rebuttal grew in their throats until it exploded–over and over again–in anger and accusation. Never mind that it was the son of God challenging their beliefs–the sky could have split and the blinding light of a thousand angels could have descended around them and many still would not have changed their minds. These people saw Jesus turn water to wine, heal the crippled and the lepers, raise people from the dead… Why was none of this sufficient to move their understanding? Because…their beliefs were too important to their identity… To their livelihoods... To their maintaining their power and credibility. To their alignment with the “right” side of the argument. Jesus didn’t fall in line with what they’d always been taught, with how they’d always done things before, with the laws and sub-laws, with their understanding and their priorities & agendas–so they had to come against him with everything they could muster. Because… if they were right, that meant Jesus was wrong.

I think it’s possible that we cling to our understanding of the “Easter” story in a similar way…

The story of Jesus’ death is foundational to our faith, so we cling to a rigid understanding that we heard–probably as children–and we refuse to bend our ear to hear the story afresh, to consider that there may be more to the story than what we’ve grafted into our teaching and our learning.

Pastor John suggested in Sunday’s message that we’ve focused on the “price paid” and lost sight of “love displayed”. I agree. We have built for ourselves a transactional faith, a punitive system, a “tit-for-tat” understanding. We, as humans, have a ravenous desire to make sense of things… humanity has always had this desire. Even though many of us have committed to memory, “Lean not on your own understanding…”, this is exactly what we do. And our understanding, like that of the first hearers of Jesus’ message, is so terribly incomplete. Biased. Filled with expectations and selfish motivations. Infantile in regard to the higher thoughts and ways of our trinitarian God. When something doesn’t make sense to us, we grasp at plausible explanations, we use terminology we understand, and we minimize the mysterious to fit into our iron-clad boxes of belief. Until we experience something so other, so beyond, that it explodes our boxes and wakes us up to what we couldn’t see before.

I think this happens over and over again as we journey with Jesus… I think it is the only way we grow beyond ourselves…

Jesus knew that those in the crowd on the day of his crucifixion were trapped in iron-clad boxes built of tradition, law, power, nationalism, control, fear, violence, retribution… He knew they expected a powerful king to ride in on a magnificent white horse and rescue them.

He did come to rescue them. And us. And all of humanity. But not in the way that anyone expected…

In verses 31-32 of chapter 15, Mark writes:

“…the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.”

They did see something that day, something that, through the ages, would compel many to believe. But they didn’t know what they were seeing, and what they thought they saw wasn’t what they wanted to see. They wanted to see power and might displayed, a display that would have fulfilled their expectations of a strong king…

We have been taught to see a suffering savior, whose blood made a way for our forgiveness and salvation, whose death for our sin pacified an angry God whose ability to forgive depended on the shedding of blood. Seeing this way satisfies our transactional, punitive, retributive, dualistic understanding. In a world where the strong and powerful rule, where violence is controlled by larger displays of violence and military might, a “price paid” understanding of the cross wins the day. It satisfies our need for vengeance and justice.

And it minimizes the extravagant love of our God. 

When we focus on the “price paid”, as many of our hymns and worship songs, as well as many sermons–old and new–do, we lose sight of the “love displayed”. What the crowd around Jesus actually saw–without being aware of what they were seeing–was the self-emptying love of a Creator who allowed himself to be tortured and murdered by his creation. They saw one who far exceeded their expectations of a powerful king, because only self-sacrificing love could look out from the cross with forgiveness in his eyes. They saw the only force powerful enough to change the course of our violent humanity–an unabashed display of perfect love. As they called out in mocking tones for Jesus to break free from the bondage they had put him in, they didn’t realize that his refusal to come down meant they could be freed from their bondage–bondage to the kingdoms of this world and all of the violence it causes.

This is what they saw–but they couldn’t see it in the moment. 

So…what do we see when we look at the cross? Do we see the price paid or the love displayed? Our answer determines how we see God, how we see others, how we see ourselves… If we are to follow Jesus, to live into his likeness as we grow in him, then it matters how we see this monumental event.

What do I see today? Self-emptying love, an extravagant love that neither plays the victim nor creates victims, but is willing to lay one’s own life down to show that there is another way to live. I see that restoration is more beautiful and more loving than retribution. That justice is actually Shalom–a return to wholeness, to all things being set right according to the restorative nature of our creator. This is what I see today. Am I right? I don’t know. But seeing this way… it is changing me. It is changing how I see God, how I understand the kingdom Jesus came to deliver to our hurting world, how I see those around me, and how I understand my own role as a Christ-follower. Self-emptying love is not a watered-down understanding of the cross–not to me. To me, it is the most demanding, most beautiful, most connected way to live this life. It makes me kinder, more loving, and I hope, more like the Jesus who keeps showing me how to do it. 

What do you see? How does what you see guide your life? Your interactions? Your decisions? Is what you see the same as it was all those years ago, when you first heard the story of the Jesus on the cross? Or has your understanding changed? There isn’t a right or wrong way to answer these questions. We are all going to see a little differently because we are unique creations and we each relate differently to our creator. That’s what makes community so beautiful, so vibrant–the unique perspectives we each bring that challenge our biases, our assumptions, our expectations, our world views. Somewhere along the way, this became threatening and we stopped asking questions. We decided that if we didn’t all see exactly the same way on every point that gave our group our identity, the defectors were wrong, heretical, and doomed to our idea of hell. This is the mindset that led to the murder of our Jesus. It’s what leads to praying for and enacting violence and murder upon our “enemies” today…

Jesus showed us a different way… will we see it? Do we have eyes to see his love displayed?

–Laura

Mark 15: 21-32, our passage from Sunday, begins with Simon from Cyrene being drug into the madness that was happening as Jesus was on his way to be crucified. Nothing in the passage suggests that Simon was even watching;  Mark words it like this: He was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. (v. 21)  Simon was sucked into the story and couldn’t escape. Do you ever wonder what he must have been thinking? The violence of the world affects all of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. Somehow, either by being willing participants, silent observers or those just trying to pass by, we can’t escape the madness of the world’s systems. The only solution to all of the crazy is the love of God displayed, which stands in stark contrast to the ways of the world.

Laura emphasized God’s love on display as the focus of Jesus’ crucifixion. I agree with her and believe that to focus on the love of the cross is to open the door to abundant life living.  The thread that weaves itself throughout all of scripture is that God loves his creation. He loves us; the desire of his heart is that we know how loved we are and then respond to that love by learning to love ourselves and others as his fearfully and wonderfully made masterpieces.   (Eph 2:10; Ps 139:14).

Choosing to focus on the extravagant, unfathomable display of God’s love contrasting it against the horrors of the crucifixion scene changes everything, including us.

Jesus himself said: Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)

Romans 5:8 tells us: God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

While we were still sinners. While all those who were perpetrating all of the madness of his mock trial, false charges and crucifixion, God was demonstrating his love for them. While we live our self-absorbed, personal agenda, me-first lives, God demonstrates his own love for us.

One of the most familiar Bible verses of all time tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16).

Asking Laura’s question from above, what portions of those three verses have you been conditioned to emphasize? For me, it’s “lay down his life”, “sinners”, “whoever believes”. However, I think if we begin to emphasize God’s love, we will see a different kind of fruit than we are currently seeing.

As Pastor John was preaching, I was struck by the religious leaders conversation amongst themselves. In verse 32, as they continue to support their own superiority and moral authority they say to one another Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.  

That we may see and believe. That we may see and believe. That we may see and believe. That he do it our way according to our expectations, meeting our approval.

According to Strong’s Concordance, the word believe means to commit oneself to. I recently read that in early Christianity the understanding of the word “believe” was to give one’s heart to. Pause there for a second; think about some verses you know that incorporate the word believe and substitute “give your heart to”, or “commit oneself to”.

So, after all that the Pharisees and teachers of the law had seen in Jesus’ earthly life, they continued to mock him by saying let him come down, save himself, and we’ll commit ourselves to him…ha!  They had no intention of committing themselves and their hearts to him, proven by the fact that after the resurrection they created all kinds of conspiracy theories and lies in order to maintain their position of power.

In today’s western Christianity, oftentimes to believe means to submit yourself to a system of doctrinal phrases. You can Google search lots of churches these days. Most of them will have a page that says “What we believe” or “Statement of faith”–something like that. Most of those pages are a list of doctrinal statements.  I don’t know what every church’s doctrinal page says, but wouldn’t it be beautiful if one of them said: We have given our hearts to the truth that God is love, that he loves you, he loves us, he loves everyone in the world and he wants us to live Spirit empowered lives that demonstrate his love to everyone everywhere.

Emphasizing God’s love for us, in us and through us would change everything.

During the Easter season, there are those who will pray at the foot of the cross and watch movies about the crucifixion in order to be reminded of how depraved they are in their flesh, and how much Jesus suffered for them. I’m not denying that we all have issues, but I think if we stay stuck year after year in our own depravity our focus tends to remain on ourselves.  What have we given our hearts to?  Our own depravity or the love of God who highly esteems us, who has made us new and has called us his beloved children?

Last week I included a quote at the end of my portion of the blog that I am going to include again–who knows– it may appear next week too:

Clare of Assisi…saw in the tragic death of Jesus our own human capacity for violence and yet, our great capacity for love…Discovering ourselves in the mirror of the cross can empower us to love beyond the needs of the ego or the need for self-gratification. We love despite our fragile flaws when we see ourselves loved by One greater than ourselves. In the mirror of the cross we see what it means to share in divine power. To find oneself in the mirror of the cross is to see the world not from the foot of the cross but from the cross itself. How we see is how we love…” (Delio, Making All Things New).

I tried to do that this week, to look at people from the vantage point of the cross. One moment was especially interesting. I was on a train with a man who was either psychotic or very high. He wanted to sit near us, and truthfully, it was a little unnerving when he asked if he was welcome there. His behavior was unpredictable, but all of a sudden I was reminded to look at him from the vantage point of the cross. What would Jesus be thinking about this guy?  Immediately my heart moved from fear to compassion. I said a prayer for him, and could feel my entire insides softening toward him. To see the world from the cross itself, the display of God’s love, changes everything.

Is our focus on wrath or love, retribution or restoration, self or others, punishment or forgiveness, depravity or fullness, fear or peace, the kingdom of this world or the kingdom of God?

How we see is how we love.

–Luanne

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Selah

“Let Me teach you something about what you think you know.”

There were many lines from Pastor Beau’s message on Sunday that stood out to me, but this one most of all. He was recapping the story of Jesus calling the first disciples in Mark 1 and commenting on the words Jesus said to these men. When he saw Simon (Peter) and Andrew fishing, Jesus called out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” (Mark 1:17, NLT) In other words, “I know you fish for a living, but there’s more to learn about fishing. You know a lot about it—it’s your livelihood—but what you think you know only scratches the surface of what I can teach you.”

As Beau talked to us about this, I couldn’t help but think about another verse. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul writes these words:

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. (NLT)

Paul understood that in everything, we are only seeing a partial picture. I think it’s pertinent to mention that this particular verse falls within the famous “love chapter” that is so often quoted at weddings. This verse, in which Paul admits his own incomplete understanding is directly followed by one thing that he is absolutely certain of—the enduring greatness of love above all other things. I believe that what we’ve been learning from Jesus in the book of Mark as we study what he said and did during his ministry absolutely confirms Paul’s assertion about the greatness of love. It also confirms how imperfect our vision is, and how much we need to be transformed by Jesus so that we can see the way he sees.

For the last six weeks, we’ve been traveling what, to many of us, is a very familiar road. These are the gospel “stories” that more than a few of us grew up hearing. Yet… we are seeing things we’ve never seen before. Pastor John has taken a small section of verses each of the last six weeks and taken us deeper into the familiar stories, stories we thought we knew. As we’ve listened to these messages, Jesus has shown up to teach us something new about what we thought we had figured out.

On Sunday, Pastor Beau brought us a “Selah” moment. A pause, if you will. His intention was to slow down and recap what we’ve been learning, to combine the individual images that have been painted for us over the last six weeks into one big picture that connects them all. He reminded us of what we’ve been learning, reiterated the main points, and offered us a bit of his own thoughts and perspective.

You know what happened during this “Selah” message?

Jesus showed up to teach me something more about things I thought I knew.

Through Beau’s teaching and through the presence of the Holy Spirit, my heart was filled with new insight, and I learned new things even as we recapped the new things we’ve learned these last weeks. There were still things we had missed, more to learn from Jesus in depths we thought we’d fully plumbed. How was there still more?

Because Jesus is brilliant, as Beau said on Sunday. In fact, Beau commented that the word “brilliant” doesn’t come close to defining Jesus—he said the only word that really describes Jesus is, well, “Jesus”. Brilliant only scratches the surface. Which is why, friends, it’s so important that we slow down and let him teach us. When have I last checked what’s in my suitcase as I walk out my journey of faith? Do I even know what I’m carrying? Do you know what you’re carrying? Have we packed in our bags rules we learned in Sunday School? Maybe our parents’ faith is in there. Are our bags full of “righteous anger” and judgement? Did love of neighbor ever make it in? How about love? Compassion? Forgiveness? Are we carrying fear and shame in our bags because we were taught that we would only ever be “unclean”, like the leper in our story from a couple of weeks ago? What have we packed? I think somewhere in each of our bags is some form of the belief that we know the “truth” and that our way of believing is “right”. We walk through life believing that there are some things we pretty much have figured out.

Jesus is speaking to each of us, just like he spoke to his first disciples, “Let me teach you something about what you think you know.”

Paul understood that until the day his finite human body crossed into the eternal, he would only ever see imperfectly. He knew a whole lot about a whole of things. But he remained teachable—fully dependent on the only One whose teaching had ever transformed his soul. We have the same opportunity. But it requires from us a willingness to admit that maybe we’ve packed some things in our bag that don’t belong there and omitted some necessities along the way. And it means acknowledging that we can not possibly expect to get it all right and have it all figured out while we walk the earth in our finite bodies. Not because we are defective or lacking some essential part of our make-up. But because we are disciples of One whose brilliance we cannot contain within any man-made boxes, One whose thoughts and ways are beyond what our limited humanity can fathom. This should not make us feel sad, frustrated, or disappointed. On the contrary, this knowledge can lead us into freedom, delight, and childlike expectation as we continue to be enlightened and enchanted by this Teacher whom we follow.

Sometimes our pride, our desire to be right and respected as wise gets in the way… Sometimes, we’re not content to introduce others to our brilliant Teacher so that they can follow Him alongside us… because what we actually want is for them to follow us. The more followers we have, the bigger our platform becomes. The bigger our platform gets, the more sure we become about what we know. And we get more and more addicted to our own greatness. So we run after the next big thing, then the bigger thing, and so on…

This brings me to one of the things Jesus showed me on Sunday, one of the things I hadn’t paused to see before…

Jesus began his ministry in front of large crowds, traveling from town to town and teaching to packed out synagogues. As his ministry grew, however, his platform got smaller. As he got more proximate to individuals and more personal with his connections, he lived a more isolated and lonely life. As his name got bigger, his opportunities in public became fewer.

Seems a little backwards, doesn’t it?

We often resent small beginnings but see them as a means to an end—an end that is bigger and more visible than wherever we had to start. We long for our platforms—and our number of followers—to grow, because somehow that will show that we’ve “made it”, that we are important.

Not so with Jesus. He started at the pinnacle—as the Word that spoke Creation, who had only ever known the communion of the Trinity and the full-faced love and intimacy that they shared. The Beloved of the Almighty, shrouded in glory and love and light.

Then he chose to get smaller.

He was born a helpless baby in a dirty manger to a poor, unmarried couple. The limitless King of Heaven willingly stepped into the confines of newborn flesh, willingly breathed in the air and dust His very mouth created. Coming to us was a huge step down from where He started.

At least when he was born, a star appeared and angels sang—Magi traveled to him bearing fine gifts fit for a King. But then he lived thirty years in absolute obscurity in nowhere Nazareth. If you could get lower than being born in a manger in Bethlehem, this was it. Another step down.

Finally, his ministry began. His cousin, John, prepared the way and proclaimed his greatness. The voice of God thundered from the heavens at his baptism. He was beginning to teach, to gain followers, to fill the synagogues with people eager to hear his voice and to be healed by his touch. People were beginning to wonder if he might be the one they’d been waiting for. They began to get excited about the Kingdom he might establish among them. Things were looking up—

Until he got proximate to one leper. He knew what it would cost him to touch this man, to enter in to his suffering. It would change the trajectory of his whole ministry—no longer would he be welcome in the synagogues. His platform would get smaller, even while his renown would grow.

And he chose to touch him anyway. Because the kingdom he carried, the one he proclaimed as “here and now” is an upside-down kingdom. He would never satisfy the peoples’ expectations for a political superpower kind of kingdom that would rule with violence and vengeance over their enemies. No. His kingdom, his way of “ruling” would continue to cost him—not only his platform, but his very life.

He knew the cost. And he chose it anyway. And because he didn’t perform to earn the next big platform, because he chose the lonely places, the hurting people, the way of compassion and sacrificial love, His name and renown remain unmatched to this day. And we grasp for words to try to describe his greatness…

We long for reach, for influence, for followers. We long to grow our platforms and make a name for ourselves. Maybe Jesus wants to teach us something about the way we define success—in ministry and otherwise. His platform got smaller and smaller the more he loved and went against what those of his day thought they “knew” to be right. What do you think you know? Is it possible that there’s more to learn?

There are a few more things I learned on Sunday that I hadn’t seen before, adjustments that needed to be made in the way I think and understand. I was going to write about more of them, but it’s about time I wrap this up. I’ll finish with this… When Jesus spoke forgiveness and healing over the paralytic who was lowered through the roof of the house where he was teaching; when he allowed the disruption to redirect his teaching to all who were present, Mark tells us, They were all amazed and praised God, exclaiming, “We’ve never seen anything like this before!” (Mark 2:12b) Everyone in that home learned something new that day—about things they already thought they knew. From the man on the mat to the disciples, to the religious leaders occupying the front-row seats, they all left that house changed. Because brilliant Jesus got personal and proximate to each of them and invited them to learn.

Our brilliant Jesus gets personal and proximate to each of us as well. He is inviting us to set aside our “wisdom” and to examine what we’ve put in our bags. He calls out to us the same way he called to his first followers…

“Let me teach you something about what you think you know.”

Will we let him?

–Laura

I love the question that Laura asked us:

What do you think you know? Is it possible that there’s more to learn?

Is it possible that there’s more to learn? My answer to that question is a huge, resounding yes!!! It renews my desire to give the Holy Spirit full access to every part of me.

When I was a child and gave my life to Jesus, my dad said the following when he was presenting me before the church– he said, “Luanne is giving as much of herself as she can to as much of Jesus as she understands.”  That phrase has stuck with with me, and this morning as I write, it came back in full force. Isn’t this the daily journey? My understanding of Jesus is deeper than it was when I was nine years old, and because He is who He is, I will never fully understand Him, which is the beauty of it all. It’s a relationship that will never grow stale, as long as I continue to knock, to ask, to seek, and grow. And when He reveals new things to me, will I give as much of myself as I am able to give (I want that to be all of me!) to the new revelation, the new understanding of Jesus? Yes. There is always more to learn.

When Peter, Andrew, James, and John left their fishing boats behind, they were following what they knew of Jesus in that moment. Scripture is kind to us and shows us some of their blunders along the way, but in the book of Acts we see men who are very different from who they were at the first part of the book of Mark–and they continued to give as much of themselves as they could to as much of Jesus as they understood, which eventually cost three of the four of them their lives.

Before they walked personally with Jesus, they thought they knew what God was about. They “knew” that women and Gentiles were inferior, that lepers and paralytics were being punished and had no place in the religious system, that there were rules to follow in order to stay in God’s good graces, and that religious power was not to be questioned. Then, God in flesh took them under His wing for three years in the form of Jesus and every bit of what they thought they knew was changed. Every bit of it was “like never before”. And they were teachable. Are we?

Pastor Beau used the analogy of foundations. In Jesus day, the foundation of a building was not under the ground, the cornerstone upon which everything else would be built was visible. In our day, foundations are dug below the dirt, they remain hidden. Sometimes they don’t stand the test of time, they get cracks in them, or begin to “settle” in ways that make the entire structure built upon them unstable. Do our spiritual foundations have cracks in them? Do they need to be inspected? Do we need to do some wrestling with our foundations? Are we built upon Jesus, our cornerstone, or something else?

The Apostle Peter, the one who began as a fisherman, quoting the prophet Isaiah wrote in his first letter:

“’See, I lay a stone in Zion,  a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’ Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’” .           (1st Peter 2:6-7)

Do we trust our chosen, precious,  like never before Savior–or do we reject Him? Do we trust that his Kingdom is here right now? Do we trust His spiritual, intellectual, and physical authority? Do we trust Him enough to be teachable, intentional, available? Do we trust Him enough to  remember that compassion means to connect ourselves to those who are suffering as if we ourselves are suffering? Do we trust Him enough to touch the untouchable? Do we trust Him enough for forgiveness to be as natural to us as breathing? Do we trust Him enough to lovingly challenge the religious culture of the day? Do we trust Him enough to let our attitude toward all people be one of love? Do we trust Him enough to let Him live through us? Do we trust Him enough to be misunderstood?  Is He our precious cornerstone? Do we believe that His ways are right? Do we trust Him enough to live like Him and to be like never before people? What foundation are we building on?

I’m going to throw out some current events, not to be controversial but to give us opportunity to let the Holy Spirit examine our hearts. Transformation requires intentionality. Let’s be intentional in knowing where we land, and why we land there. If something makes us squirm or feel defensive, let’s sit with and ask the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth.  Let’s wrestle with which foundation we land on in each of these situations–is it Jesus our cornerstone, or something man made that is vulnerable to cracks?  The situation at our border, people seeking asylum, children living in cages, refugees and immigrants as a whole–which foundation? Women who have had abortions–which foundation? Our politicians and the way they model how to treat people–which foundation? The LGBTQ community-which foundation? Muslims–which foundation? The injustices that our fellow citizens who represent our nation’s ethnic minorities try to raise awareness of–which foundation?  Families who’ve lost children to gun violence–which foundation?  Hurting, angry disenfranchised white males who become mass shooters–which foundation? Religious leaders who’ve used their power to sexually abuse others and the cover ups that have followed–which foundation? If Jesus were standing right here in the flesh, where would he be? Let’s wrestle. Let’s let Him teach us. He is not Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or Tea Party –He is Jesus. He is not American–He is Jesus. He is not Baptist or Catholic, or Methodist, or Episcopalian, or non-denominational–He is Jesus. The only way He can be described, as Laura highlighted above, is by Himself. Jesus is Jesus.

Pastor Beau reminded us that Jesus will never ever, ever use His authority and power to be abusive–ever. His authority and power teach us how to fight battles in the spiritual realm. His way of relating to people teaches us how to relate to people–and that even as he pushed back against the thoughts of the religious leaders, he wasn’t taking jabs at them; he was giving them opportunities to change their way of thinking (repenting) about who God is and what His mission is. He loved them all. He loves us all. He. Is. Love.

Beau reminded us that the ministry of Jesus was a monumental shift between the Old Testament and New Testament which can also be called Old Covenant and New Covenant. Jesus came to establish a New Covenant–a covenant in His blood. A new wine skin into which the old wine could not be poured.  New. Different. Like never before.

In John 18:36 Jesus told Pilate that His kingdom is not of this world.

In Luke 17:21 Jesus tells his followers that the Kingdom is within us.

We can’t miss this if we are going to live as like never before people. The Kingdom that is not of this world is within usthis very Kingdom that Jesus taught us to pray would come to earth, the very Kingdom that takes over the world and becomes the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Messiah (Rev. 11:15)-this Kingdom is our mission. This is what we are to be about. His Kingdom coming on earth, His will being done on earth.

Every current event that I listed above would not exist if His Kingdom was reigning here. There would be no need to seek asylum, there would be no need to escape violence, there would be no “us and them”, there would be no abortion because women and children would be cared for by all of us, there would be no violence at all, there would be no injustice, no disenfranchised, no hate, no abuse of power, no pre-judging (also known as prejudice), no hateful rhetoric–there would be love. His kind of love. 

The Apostle Peter told us:  “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual houseto be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1st. Peter 2:5). 

We are living stones being built on the foundation of Jesus, our cornerstone. Jesus told the religious leaders of His day “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” (Mt. 9:13 NLT)

Knowing that we are all in this together, that none of us is righteous in our own strength–the spiritual sacrifice which we are to offer to God is mercy. Mercy is a noun which means kindness, compassion, especially toward those undeserving of it,  and whose synonyms include grace, favor, goodness, gentleness, tenderness, love. (www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/mercy). We are all undeserving of His mercy, yet we have received it and continue to receive it in overflowing abundance from our like never before Jesus. Do we, in turn,  offer mercy as a spiritual sacrifice to the people of the world?

As we pause in our series for this Selah moment, may we reflect on what we’ve heard so far, may we be committed to presenting our like never before Savior to the world around us by being like never before followers of the one who lives in us.

Let’s enter in like never before.

–Luanne

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Compassion (Like Never Before)

Leper.

What comes to mind as you read that word?

Leprosy isn’t a disease we hear much about today. Only a handful of cases are diagnosed in the United States each year, and with modern medicine, it is absolutely curable. But it wasn’t always that way…

During the time that Jesus walked in human skin, leprosy was a death sentence. It was terminal–there was no cure. But worse than the death sentence was the life sentence it carried… We picked up our story of Jesus in Mark 1:40-45 this week. These verses tell us the story of a leper. Consider this man’s reality with me for a moment…

We don’t know his name, or who he was before the leprosy. We know nothing of the life he’d lived before. He had been banished from human contact, with no hope of being touched by anyone again. Perhaps he’d been a husband, a father. If so, his family was now to regard him as though he were dead–even while he lived. Never again would he embrace his wife or hold his children. In fact, his wife may have already remarried, as she would have been regarded as a widow…

Even if someone dared to touch him, he wouldn’t feel it–the disease affected his nerve endings and destroyed his ability to feel. His leprosy made him numb. For the rest of his life… He was sentenced to a life in the shadows–and even there, people would avoid him, because they believed even his shadow was contagious. He was sentenced to a life of shame and obscurity, and who he used to be mattered not. From here on out, his identity was “leper” and “unclean”. If he dared come near a town, he’d be obligated to shout out that word to warn people to stay away. “Unclean! Unclean!” This was his name now. He lived his life as the walking dead.

Rejected. Unclean. Isolated. Ashamed. Lonely. Broken. Numb. Disgraced. Discarded. Forgotten. Unnamed. Untouchable. Hopeless…

He would live alone. And then die alone. Would anyone notice he was gone? Likely not, for his life ended the day his leprosy appeared. He had been dead to them–all of them–since then.

But Jesus…

Maybe the leper had heard rumors of this man from passers by… Maybe another leper had spoken of him… We don’t know how this man knew about Jesus, but he’d heard enough to recognize when he came near. And one day, as Jesus was traveling throughout the region of Galilee, preaching, healing, and casting out demons, this leper fell at Jesus’ feet. He knelt before the One he had heard of, grasping at hope and brimming with belief…

“If you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean,” he said. (Mark 1:40b, NLT)

Somehow, he knew Jesus could cure the incurable. He believed in His ability to restore him to health.

But maybe he wouldn’t want to…

The paralyzed, blind, demon-possessed, and otherwise afflicted had experienced healing at the hands of Jesus. But him? A leper who was already regarded as dead to his community? Maybe Jesus wouldn’t go that far.

“If you are willing…”

I can picture his eyes, pleading, daring to hope–but wide with a bit of fear… Was he crying? Did he look at the ground, or did he glance at the eyes looking back at him? If he did, did he see the deep pools of Jesus’ eyes fill as the emotion within Him surfaced? The vulnerability of this moment–for both men–causes me to pause, to linger, to imagine what each of them might have been feeling…

Have you ever pleaded with anyone? Knowing they had the power to help you, the ability to meet your need, if only they wanted to? Has anyone ever pleaded with you that way? Do you know the desperation of a moment like this one?

Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be healed!” (Mark 1:41, NLT)

Compassion… Pastor John spoke of compassion as the deepest of human expressions. It is a feeling that originates in the gut, more specifically in the bowels. Something deep within feels the suffering of another. It is more than coming alongside one who is suffering. It isn’t a surface emotion, like sympathy; it doesn’t carry the condescension of pity, and it doesn’t remain detached like empathy. It is entering into the suffering of another as though it was happening to you.

Jesus was filled with compassion for this man, moved by it. In this moment, it was as if he became a leper, too, and felt the hopelessness, the sorrow, the depth of his agony… Again, I imagine Jesus’ eyes as He entered into this man’s existence, knowing the man’s rejection and loneliness would transfer to Him as He granted this request… Did His chest tighten as He realized that what He felt for this man–the rejection and isolation that was headed His way as soon as people heard the news of his healing–would pale in comparison to the rejection, betrayal, and death that He would soon feel? As His compassion and deep love for humanity led Him to the end of His own life on this earth?

I don’t know the answers to the many questions this story provokes. But I do know that Jesus didn’t hesitate. Didn’t count the cost and weigh His options, though the cost to His very well-being would be extremely high. His response was not an emotionally driven knee-jerk reaction, though His emotions were absolutely in play during this interaction. How do I know this? Because of what the word “willing” means here…

In the Greek, the word is distinguished as “an active option”, and differentiated from “subjective impulse”. It means “to will, have in mind, intend; be resolved or determined, to purpose; to desire, to wish; to love; to like to do a thing, be fond of doing; to take delight in, have pleasure.”

When Jesus said He was willing, it wasn’t a flippant decision. It wasn’t a begrudging yes. It was an expression of deep love and purpose, something He was delighted to do, something that–while the cost to Himself would be very high–He was determined to do.

And He didn’t only say the words. He reached out and touched the man… 

Can you even imagine this moment?

We don’t know how long this man had suffered. How many days, months, years it had been since anyone reached out to touch him… He clearly believed that Jesus was able to heal him. But to be seen, heard, and then touched by the Jewish rabbi/God-man? Touched by this One who knew and understood that to touch him was to violate every social, medical, and religious law, rule, and recommendation regarding people of his kind? I imagine the thought didn’t even cross his mind.

Can you picture the shock on his face as the hand of Jesus moved his direction? Did he flinch, or try to move out of the way so he wouldn’t contaminate Jesus? Did he gasp or try to say something? Did he even see it coming, this collision of heaven and earth? Or was he staring at the ground, ashamed of his need and afraid of the response he would receive? We aren’t given details of the interaction, so we’re left to wonder… Did Jesus gently lift the man’s chin so he could see the love on His face as He voiced His willingness? Did He tenderly cup his face in both hands? Did he reach for his hands and lift him to his feet? Leprosy had robbed this man of the ability to feel touch. Did Jesus’ hands linger on him until he could feel the warmth of the Healer’s hands break through his numbness?

I don’t know. But every possible scenario causes my breath to catch in my chest…

Sweet Jesus, how beautiful you are… How kind… 

Touching him let the leper know that Jesus was willing to accept the cost of compassion. And it would cost Him everything, as it was the beginning of the violence and rejection Jesus would face at the hands of those He came to heal… Touching him told the leper that Jesus was willing to take his place, to share his pain, to connect with him. This went far beyond concern. Jesus got proximate to this man. He took the time to look and see beyond the surface, to listen so that He could really hear. He set aside the “wisdom” of the culture around Him that said this man might as well be dead, that he was hopeless, and beyond the reach of mercy. He chose to engage deeply enough to feel the full extent of this leper’s pain. He got close enough to smell the stench of his disease–and He continued to move toward him, not away. Because compassion takes us all the way. All the way into the pain of the one in front of us. Beyond the judgments, assumptions, and invisible walls of separation. Compassion takes us beyond our comfort zones and often, right into a danger zone. And then it takes us further… Jesus touched him…

The nuance of this story is lost on us if we move through it too quickly. Take a moment to place yourself there. If you had a front-row seat to this interaction, what would you see? Hear? Feel?

Jesus touched the untouchable… In that moment, as Pastor John told us on Sunday, the Kingdom came and invaded the life of this leper. I can’t articulate how much I love that. This story, contained in six short verses, shows us what the kingdom looks like. The way of the kingdom is the way of self-sacrificing love. If we haven’t allowed compassion to move us out beyond ourselves into love that chooses to identify with and take the place of another, we haven’t become carriers of the kingdom. The kingdom has come–Jesus brought it with Him and He modeled what it looks like over and over again. It is here, among us, inviting us to step into it, to carry it to every corner of this earth–but I think we sometimes have the wrong idea of what “Your kingdom come” actually means…

Kingdom love always co-suffers with the “other”–whoever that may be. Kingdom love doesn’t pick and choose who’s worthy to be invited in. Kingdom love doesn’t shame people to Jesus. Kingdom love doesn’t “truth” people to Jesus. Kingdom love doesn’t judge people to Jesus. Kingdom love wears the shoes of compassion–or it isn’t Kingdom love at all. 

Jesus showed us what Kingdom love looks like and what it does. It moves us to go. To go to the ones we’re told to disregard, to be afraid of, to ignore, to disdain, to stay away from. To the ones who could hurt us, infect us, and change our “status”. The Kingdom moves us to go to them, and to engage with their stories. It moves us to enter into their lives, knowing it will cost us. Kingdom love says, “I’ll take your place. My life, given for yours.”

In Jesus’ day, the leper represented the dirtiest of humanity. The leper’s level of “uncleanness” was second only to a decomposing corpse.

But Jesus… He changed everything. He brought the kingdom to this man, fully aware of the cost.

Who are the “lepers” of today? Who are we unwilling to engage with, unwilling to get proximate to? Who do we regard as “unclean”, “hopeless”, even… better off dead? Who do we judge from a distance, post about on social media, and see as less than human? Who, if we choose to enter into their lives and their pain, could cost us? Who are we unwilling to touch because the social, physical, financial, and professional risks are just too high? Who are we afraid of?

Is it the LGBTQ community? 

Women who have had abortions?

Undocumented immigrants?

Muslim refugees? 

Prisoners on death row?

The sick?

The elderly?

The disabled?

Democrats?

Republicans?

People who don’t look like you?

That estranged family member?

Yourself…?

Who are the lepers in your world? Who is hiding in the shadows, hopeless and rejected, asking, “Do I have worth?”, “Is there any hope for me?”, “Are you even willing to look at me, hear me, touch me?” What would it take for you to move toward that person, toward that group?

Jesus isn’t walking the earth in human skin today.

But His Church is.

The Kingdom invaded one leper’s life on an ordinary day that changed both his and Jesus’ life forever. We are invited, and called, as Kingdom-bearers, to be moved by compassion and love and carry that same Kingdom–the one that also invaded and transformed our lives on ordinary days–into the hardest places, to the most broken of lives.

Think constantly of those in prison as if you were prisoners at their side. Think too of all who suffer as if you shared their pain. (Hebrews 13:3, J.B. Phillips)

This verse calls us to remember those who suffer, to think about them constantly. This will cultivate our concern. But Jesus taught us by example that compassion is more than simply thinking of those who suffer. Compassion is concern that has learned how to walk, how to move and get proximate to those we think of and pray for. This is the way of the Kingdom. Walking in compassion identifies us with the One we call Savior.

Friends, we can carry healing, kingdom love to a hurting, dying world… Jesus has entrusted us to carry His kingdom–

Are we willing?

–Laura

A few years ago, I was walking to work and pondering the word “remember”. I was struck by the fact that the opposite of remember is not forget–the opposite is dismember. Hebrews 13:3, that Laura wrote above, in many other translations uses the word remember… The NLT version reads:

Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies. 

That verse is the very definition of the compassion Jesus modeled. We (I) too easily dismember ourselves from the pain of others–yet Jesus says connect yourself to others, re-member, attach yourself to them. Enter into their story with them. Feel with them. Suffer with them. Become them, as much as you are able to.

Compassion is greater than pity, which can be condescending.

                          Compassion is greater than sympathy, which can be superficial.

                                         Compassion is greater than empathy, which can be too distant.

                                                                           Compassion wants to take their place. 

Is anything about compassion easy? No. Compassion is self-sacrificing. Compassion is loving others so well that we are willing to exchange our lives for theirs. Compassion looks like Jesus.

Laura wrote beautifully about the leper’s encounter with Jesus–she slowed us down, put us in his shoes, caused us to think about what he may have been thinking, feeling, experiencing. Can you imagine what his life was like?

So here he is, this total outcast who is not supposed to come out of the shadows, yet he not only comes out of the shadows but approaches Jesus. Up until this moment  in the book of Mark, Jesus has been ministering to the masses. He’s been teaching in  synagogues, he’s been healing large numbers of people. But Jesus, (I love him so much), in this moment, becomes all about the one man.  The one. The one rejected, isolated, unclean, untouchable man.

Jesus touches him. I wonder if this man who couldn’t feel felt the touch of Jesus immediately, or if Jesus gave him a moment to see that he was being touched, even while he was still diseased, and gradually let the touch become felt?  The moment of Jesus’ touch makes me think of the verse God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8). While we are still diseased, he touches us, while we are still diseased, he takes our place. He didn’t heal the man first and then touch him. He touched him while he was still sick. He does this for us–do we do this for others? If he hadn’t/doesn’t love us in our brokenness, we have no chance to be in relationship with him. We cannot fix ourselves. And compassion like this is the proof of God’s love-if we are the carriers of His love to this broken world, what does compassion look like for us?

Compassion will cost us something. For Jesus, in this encounter, it cost him the ministry that he previously had. After Jesus asked the man not to tell anyone, but to go show himself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that were required as a testimony of his healing (vs. 44-45) the man did what we might do as well–he told everyone. The result was that Jesus could no longer enter a town openly, but stayed outside in lonely places. (vs. 45)The man, who had previously been isolated, banished to live outside in lonely places, was now free to be part of society again. Jesus was now the one living in lonely places.

There is so much in this encounter. So much. Many of us recognize that Jesus died in our place. He gave His life in exchange for ours–and we are grateful. But what He models in this story is that this very human earth life we live–he is willing to exchange for His.  I think this is a key point in what it means to be a Jesus-follower. If his life now lives in me, do I look like him?

In trying to think of people who model compassion, my mind kept going to the Ten Boom family, Christians who hid Jews in their home during World War 2. They were arrested–they knew all along that arrest was a possibility–but they were willing to show compassion, Jesus’ kind of compassion–the entering in and suffering with kind of compassion. Only one of the Ten Booms survived the concentration camp. Her name was Corrie, and she wrote an incredible book called “The Hiding Place” that tells their story.  They broke the laws of Nazi Germany in order to fulfill the law of Christ–“love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31),  and greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13). Which laws are most important to us?

The call for Jesus-followers— we are to be him by letting him live the life that he exchanged for ours through us.

We just finished our season of 21 Days of Prayer and Fasting, and this year many of the needs we were interceding for were heavy and hard. Friday night, as I was praying, a worship song that lifts Jesus up and recognizes that He is on the throne came on. It’s a song that I usually love, but Friday I could not sing it. Instead I was saying to Jesus, I know that you are on the throne–but right now I don’t need to feel that distance. I need to know that you are right here, right now, and that you hear our cries on behalf of these we are praying for. The need felt overwhelming to my heart and I was hurting for so many.

Saturday morning, our last time together for this season, communion was being served. As I was praying, my eyes kept being drawn to the bread and the juice. God reminded me that bread and juice come from the earth–they are elements of earth. He reminded me that Jesus–our bread, our wine–is fully present here, fully human even while being fully divine. I needed to be reminded of his humanity, and I was.

After Jesus went to live in lonely places, Mark concludes this encounter by telling us the people still came to him from everywhere. Jesus had proven that he is in this with us. He touched a leper. He is here. He will touch you, and give you the freedom to touch others–not just the ones who are easy to touch, but the ones who when you touch them, when you speak up for them, when you love them, it may cost you something. It’s the Jesus way–and nothing is more beautiful.

Love so amazing, so divine

                                                                      Demands my soul, 

                                 my life

                                                    my all…

                              (When I Survey, Isaac Watts)

Re–member.

–Luanne

Image result for compassion quote henri nouwen

 

Advent #4: Peace

It is Christmas time,  and as I sit to write this my house is still and quiet. My heart is filled with gratitude over the significance and beauty of this day that we celebrate. My gratitude to God for coming to us overwhelms me. Where would we be without the gift of God in the flesh?

Each year, I ask for fresh revelation. I don’t ever want to be so familiar with scripture that I miss something new God wants to show me. There are always new things to notice, to ponder, to wrestle with, to be transformed by. Sometimes things I haven’t seen before rock my world and lead me to dig in to scripture for months. It is always fresh because the Holy Spirit makes it so. Pastor John’s sermon on Sunday gave me some things to ponder.

The Peace candle is also called the Candle of the Angels–the angels who announced that God’s peace had arrived on earth in the form of a newborn baby. His Shalom–His answer for all that is wrong in the world, all that creates chaos, all that is broken, was embodied in this tiny homeless baby who had been laid in a livestock feed trough.

The words of the first angel to appear read like this:

And there were shepherds residing in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Just then, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! For behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today in the City of David a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord! And this will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there appeared with the angel a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests!” Luke 2:8-14

In their greeting, Luke used the Hebrew word “Savior” the Greek word “Christ” and the blended word “Lord” which was understood by the Hebrew people as Adonai, their name for God, and the Roman world was quite familiar with the significance of the word Lord. Right there, in the declaration of the angels is the first public announcement that God is here on the earth, that He is here for everyone, and that His peace is available. Those on whom His favor rests are those who recognize Him and step into life under His Lordship. What those on whom HIs favor rests really means is those on whom His kindly intent rests, His kindness–the very thing that leads us to repent (Rom. 2:4)–available to all people everywhere.

The shepherds are the ones who receive this message. The shepherds whose very profession causes them to be unclean. They are at the bottom of the religious hierarchy, unable to enter the temple themselves. They are outcasts, “less thans” — and, as often happens with those deemed “other” or “outsiders”, they have been stereotyped. They were stereotyped as dishonest people, so much so that they were not allowed to testify in court. Their testimony was always considered invalid. Yet, these very people, are the ones God chose to confirm that the angel’s message was true.

I can’t help but make the connection that another stereotyped, less than, people group during this time period whose testimony  would be considered invalid were women. Yet, who did Jesus honor by giving them the awesome ministry of telling the disciples that He was alive? (Mt. 28:7-10)

I think there is much for us to ponder in God’s deliberate choices here. We must always be extremely careful with stereotypes. Those considered other, less than, and marginalized may be the very people that God is using to show us more of Himself and His Kingdom’s ways.  In His Kingdom the last are the first, the least are the greatest, the humble are the lifted up, and His ministry of making things right–peace for all humankind–belongs to all of us who call Him Lord. We minister to Him when we love the hungry, the imprisoned, the poor, the naked, not as less than, but as Christ Himself. (Mt. 25). And I know from personal experience, He has much to teach us through the marginalized.

So our first unlikely messengers, the shepherds,  after they see Jesus, leave rejoicing and go tell everyone. Our second unlikely messengers, who actually declare Jesus as King, are the Magi.

Matthew 2:1-2 tells us all the detail we get about them in this story: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem  and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

There are lots of assumptions made about the Magi–we most always see them in a group of three riding on camels, and they show up at the manger. Scripture doesn’t tell us that there were three, or what their names are, or that they rode on camels. What we do know is they came a long distance, they knew, when they saw his star, that the King of the Jews had been born, and they came to worship him.

First important thing to note–these are not Jewish men. The Magi are Gentiles, considered pagans. What is God doing by including these outsiders? Not only are they Gentiles–they are mystics.

We don’t know much about these particular Magi, but this is not the first time Magi appear in scripture. Magi were members of many ancient cultures–the Babylonians, the Chaldeans, the Medes, and the Persians. They were interpreters of dreams, astrologers and astronomers, priests and teachers/anointers of kings.  In the Old Testament book of Daniel, in the account of King Belshazzar’s encounter with the writing on the wall, we learn that Daniel, who had been taken to Babylon during the Israeli exile, became chief Magi under King Nebuchadnezzar:

The king summoned the enchanters, astrologers and diviners. Then he said to these wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing and tells me what it means will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.” Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant.  So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale. His nobles were baffled.

 The queen, hearing the voices of the king and his nobles, came into the banquet hall. “May the king live forever!” she said. “Don’t be alarmed! Don’t look so pale!  There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the time of your father he was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods. Your father, King Nebuchadnezzar, appointed him chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners.  He did this because Daniel, whom the king called Belteshazzar, was found to have a keen mind and knowledge and understanding, and also the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems. Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means.” Daniel 5:7-12.

When Daniel was brought in, he made it very clear that he served the Most High God, and Daniel said to the king that the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes. (v. 21)

Daniel was a Magi. Daniel was an undeterred, courageous, uncompromising lover and follower of the Most High God. Daniel counseled three kings in Babylon. He had great influence. Is it possible that the Magi that came to worship Jesus knew that the King of the Jews would be born because Daniel was a faithful witness to God’s promises and prophecies 600 years before?

Matthew continues, in his account to let us know that the Magi went to King Herod to find out where the King of the Jews was to be born. Herod called in his priests and teachers of the law to find out, and Herod was greatly disturbed. Once the Magi learned that the prophecy spoke of Bethlehem, that’s where they went. The star led them to  the right house. They were not the least bit concerned that Jesus wasn’t in a palace. They presented him with gifts, and they worshiped him. They were declaring that Jesus is King.

God’s ways are not our ways. The religious community of Jesus’ day rejected him as King. He was a threat to their traditional way of doing things, and a threat to their power. The political community of the day certainly had no tolerance for a competing Kingdom. But God’s plans and ways will not be thwarted by our fallen world’s systems. He chooses foreigners, outsiders, oppressed people, mystics, and anyone else He cares to use, to draw us to Himself. Are we willing to let go of stereotypes? Are we willing to let the box we’ve put God in fall away, so that we can see Him, know Him, serve Him, love Him, and be instruments of His peace in this world that so desperately needs to experience His kindness and His love?

What have I to offer
To heaven’s King
                                                    I will bring my life, my love, my all…                                                   (Chris Tomlin, Adore)

My life, my love, my all. May this be the gift we offer to Jesus as we celebrate Him this season.

–Luanne 

Luanne wrote:

His Shalom–His answer for all that is wrong in the world, all that creates chaos, all that is broken, was embodied in this tiny homeless baby who had been laid in a livestock feed trough…”

I took the liberty of highlighting Luanne’s use of the word “all” above, because it so very important in our attempts to understand what the Shalom–the peace–of Jesus is all about. If Shalom is setting things right and bringing wholeness and restoration to ALL that is wrong and broken (and it is that…), then peace is only ever possible if ALL are included to the same degree. Where any are excluded, or where there is the absence of chaos but only through the means of hierarchy, there is not Shalom. Because in those instances, things are only really “right” and “whole” for some. The Prince of Peace came to rewrite our definition of peace. It was never meant to be exclusive.

The Shalom that was ushered in with Jesus’ incarnation “set right” all previous exclusion and rejection. From the day of His birth through His very last breath, we see this play out in extraordinary ways…

Luanne wrote about the shepherds–how they were viewed in society, and how their testimony was null in the eyes of the people of that day. She also wrote about the women–the first to preach the good news of Jesus’ resurrection–and how their testimony was also worth nothing in the courts of that time. I can’t help but think of the servants who were the only ones to see Jesus turn water to wine during the wedding feast at Cana (John 2), and the Samaritan woman (that’s two strikes against her according to the culture of that day) who experienced the Shalom of Jesus and went on to tell her whole village–and many believed in Jesus based upon her testimony. These are only a few examples of Jesus bringing restoration to all… Inclusion where exclusion and hierarchy had previously reigned. Acceptance where there had been only rejection. Healing and freedom where there had been brokenness and shame. He came to set it all right…

Do you know what is so mind blowing about all of this? All of these stories made it into our scriptures. They were written down by men who, according to the accepted practices of their time, could have completely dismissed their words. And what would we have if they had?

The two most important events in the life of Jesus–the incarnation and the resurrection–were reported by outsiders whose testimonies were invalid in all of the courts of that day. These stories that we celebrate on our two most important Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter, were first told by those who were most dismissable. Our all-powerful, Holy God chose those who were least likely to be believed, those most on the outside, and entrusted these precious ones with the biggest headlines that would ever be written. Because this powerful, holy God is perfect love and His disposition is kindness and He is a God who sees and sets right the wrongs of this life. This God saw to it that if the “haves” wanted to know the story, they would have to be quiet and listen to the “have nots”. And we see this invisible God in the person of Jesus who came, as Luanne said, as a “tiny, homeless baby”–so that His life could deliver true Shalom to ALL…

When Shalom comes, this peace that includes and restores all things, it can feel like rejection and loss to those who have become accustomed to being the “elite”. We see this play out during the life of Jesus, too. How, as He elevated those who had lived under the feet of others–under the weight of power structures and systems that oppressed them– those who had the power and stood on top were very unwilling to be brought down to the foundation of equality Jesus was rebuilding (the foundation was first set in Eden–broken humanity destroyed it). His ways felt like loss to those who were on top. And it was loss–loss of all that was keeping them from the wholeness that is only possible Jesus’ way.

I am so grateful that the story of Jesus was written through the testimony of the leasts, the lasts, the lowly, the rejected. I am so grateful there were some who did believe their testimony–because what if they hadn’t? I believe this love story of God coming for all of us would have still been told, because God is, well God and all… But I love that it was told by those who had probably never before been entrusted with news that carried any real weight–yet, here they were, carrying the weight of Glory within their testimonies… 

It can be tempting to see this as a reminder that even when we feel less-than and unqualified to share our testimonies, we should share them anyway–and, maybe there are times we need to remember exactly that… But I would challenge all of us to take a good look at ourselves and our “place” in the world before we land in that place. Who around us is stereotyped? Whose testimony is deemed invalid in our time? Who are those seen as unclean in our culture? If the answer to those questions is not us, then we need to understand that we’re the ones who’ve become accustomed to being the “elite”. And we’re invited into the Shalom of Jesus. We are invited to come down to the level ground of Jesus to listen to those who He’s brought up to that same foundation. The foundation of the Prince of Peace–real, lasting, all-inclusive peace. Where all is made right, and all are made whole. Where all are invited to call Jesus our Life, our Lord, our King. On this foundation, the Kingdom of heaven comes. And the ways of this Kingdom are love and Shalom.

Are we willing to give our lives, our love, our all to the King of this Kingdom?

–Laura

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Stories: Jonathan & Jeaneece

As I reflect on the story we heard on Sunday morning, my eyes fill with salty pools again. We were given a gift that few are courageous enough to give another: raw, undiluted vulnerability. Truth, spilled from weary, hurting hearts. I am so grateful for the words that Jonathan and Jeaneece shared with us, and it is a terrifying honor to be sharing and expanding upon some of those words here.

The Schmidts married young. Their journey together began in New Mexico. While working at a youth camp in the mountains, Jonathan heard a call into ministry. He heard these words: “I want you to be my watchtower.”

Jonathan had never aspired to be a pastor. In fact, he shared that, “A pastor is the one thing I never wanted to be.” Much like Jonathan, Jeaneece had never seen herself as a pastor’s wife. Yet, here they were. Jonathan said that this call started a season of  bargaining with God, and laying fleeces out–fleeces that God responded to as He, over and over again, provided a way.

They remained in New Mexico, serving at a church there, for three years. During these years, Jonathan recalls rubbing elbows with the higher-ups and not liking what he saw. He said that his thoughts at that time were basically, “If this is what ministry is, I’m out of here.” 

A friend told Jonathan, “Run. If you’re called, you won’t be able to hide.”   

And so they left. They ran. All the way to Bellingham, Washington. They both worked outside of the church world. But they didn’t stay away from church. They began to serve with the youth at their new church–strictly on a volunteer, unpaid basis though–at their request. They loved their students deeply and, eventually, Jonathan found himself on staff again. Turns out his friend had been correct–he couldn’t hide.

At some point along the way, they had two daughters and then two sons. They landed back in New Mexico–Albuquerque this time–for a season, and eventually they ended up back in Washington. As they described the many transitions and changes, Jeaneece said, “All of a sudden…life happened.” 

Jonathan and Jeaneece spent 32 years in ministry. And then, in December 2014, they realized they’d had enough. They needed to be done. They had nothing left. The environment they were in was toxic. That transitional time in their lives is what eventually brought them to Casper.

What had they had enough of? What did they need to be done with? In a word: church. Their experiences in ministry left them empty and needing to be done. Jonathan, in describing some of these experiences, said, “I didn’t think I signed up for what I saw.”

What was it that he saw? When Pastor John asked him how he saw the church, he said, “They seemed to be about building their little kingdoms.” He shared that his relationship with Jesus got dumped on over and over again. He had witnessed power plays, been stabbed in the back by his head pastor, and had seen leaders conspiring against pastors. He saw “self-righteous, religious, church garbage”, and he witnessed fighting over music, buildings, and what would be taught. At a particularly raw moment, he spoke these words…

“I trust no one… I’m having to re-learn how to trust God.”

Of the current season they are in, Jonathan said, “We don’t know what this story looks like tomorrow…” 

Yeah. I feel that, too. You probably do as well… We don’t know what the story will look like tomorrow. A different line in our series introduction video stood out to me this week:

“Is the Writer trustworthy to get the middle right? To surprise us with His love one more time?”

It seems to me that this line captures where Jonathan and Jeaneece are right now. They left the ministry after 32 years, but in many ways, where they are now is in the middle. Not the end. Not by any means. And they know that…  They articulated that they know God’s not done yet–but they don’t know what it looks like.

They have been hurt deeply by the church… and yet they are still a part of ours. What a gift we have been given in who they are and the story they carry into our midst. The reminder they give us to be on our guard against the temptation to build our own comfortable kingdom–not simply because that isn’t the Kingdom Jesus came to bring, but because when we forget why we exist, we hurt people.

Jonathan said to the faces that dotted the sanctuary, “Thank you for giving us the space to exist on the edges.”

His words gutted me.

He was thanking us for allowing them to come in as far as they could bear, without asking them to dive in further. For letting them be exactly where they are on their journey without making them feel like that wasn’t enough. But the way he put the words together…

Thank you for giving us the space to exist on the edges.”

Thank you for giving us the space to exist…”

I wanted to respond, “Thank you for gracing our edges with your existence, for choosing to exist among us.”

How did we get where we are, Church? As the big “C” church of Jesus? That someone’s experience could be so damaging, so painful, that us simply giving them space to exist on the edges would be such a gift? Why are we so bad at simply letting one another exist? Exactly as we are, where we are? How did we get so far from loving God and loving others, from carrying Jesus’ kingdom of love to those around us?

A pastor and his wife who deeply love Jesus, and wanted nothing more than to extend that love to so many who were desperate for what they had, left the ministry after 32 painstaking years–depleted, disillusioned, with nothing left to give. It breaks my heart. And as I sat, shaken to my core by their honesty and their pain, the Spirit implored me to search my own heart. To see where I’ve fallen into the “business” of church life and forgotten to make space for those around me to exist in whatever way they need to. I am grateful for the reminder of how ugly we, as human beings, can be. How selfish and cruel we can be, the ways we tear each other down in pursuit of our own comfort and greatness.

How Jonathan and Jeaneece got here, to Casper, to our church, is a heartbreaking story. But I am so, so glad they are here. Whether they realize it or not, they are still ministering to those around them. They carry the Jesus that they love faithfully, even especially in their brokenness. They’re not afraid to ask questions, to wrestle with God about the hard. And their realness invites us to be real, too. They say they are “making it” right now by taking it day by day, trusting that God has enough for that day. Jeaneece said, “Day by day, you have to make the choice to reach for joy. It’s a deliberate search for things to be thankful for, an intentionality of looking for the good.” 

They are in process, as we all are. They’re in the murky middle, wondering, hoping and somehow knowing that the Writer is trustworthy to get it right–to surprise them with His love one more time…

Let’s give each other space to exist friends, to be the Church that loves like Jesus and lives for His Kingdom-not our own.

–Laura

I wish you all could know Jonathan and Jeaneece. They are beautiful, tender-hearted people. Their vulnerability as they shared drew us in. There were a lot of tears, I could hear gentle weeping all around me, and I cried too. Theirs is a story of deep love, and of deep grief. There is much we can learn from them.

Jonathan shared with us that when he met the real Jesus as a teenager,  he was overwhelmed by an intense love like he’d never known. Jonathan has experienced the deep love of Jesus, and he loves Jesus deeply–which is why his grief is so deep. Any of us who have been loved deeply, and love deeply in return are grief-stricken when the object of our love is misrepresented and abused. Jonathan shared with us that being a loyal defender has been hard-wired into him since he was a child. What he has experienced on church staffs cut him to the core, because Jesus-the one who loves him deeply, and the one he loves in return-has been misrepresented. Jonathan’s heart is to be lovingly and deeply loyal to Jesus and His mission.

Laura wrote above that both Jonathan’s grandfather and his dad were pastors. Jonathan didn’t want to have anything to do with Jesus, and certainly didn’t want to be a pastor. He said that what he had observed led him to believe that “it” doesn’t work.  So, when he was overwhelmed by the love of Jesus, it was a huge moment in his life.

Jeaneece had never aspired to be a pastor’s wife. It’s a hard thing–both to be in ministry (which she was), and to be married to a “professional” minister.

I am the daughter of a pastor–and the wife of a pastor. I did not want to marry anyone in the ministry either. Unlike Jonathan’s experience, my dad modeled Jesus in a beautiful way. My dad is a gentle, wise, shepherd who drinks from a deep fountain and ministers from that place. I did not realize how rare that was until I left home. But even gentle, loving pastors can come under attack from factions in their church, so after pastoring the same church from the time I was six years old until I was pregnant with my third child at the age of thirty, my dad retired early because he didn’t want the church he loved and had poured his life into to split. It was ugly, hateful, satanic. The man who started the ugly went on to be a denominational leader in my home state, and in that state the denomination has been in lawsuits and power plays that have been very public. It makes my heart sick.

Even when the “hard” isn’t that public, life for ministers and their families is challenging.

There is tremendous pressure placed upon pastors and their families. We live in a fishbowl, and many people live as if they have permission to make commentary on how they think we’re doing. The children of the pastor have expectations placed upon them to be perfect, and if they’re not, it’s a reflection on their parent. I hated running into an adult from church when I was with my friends as a teenager. I would be introduced as their pastor’s daughter, and all of a sudden there was an expectation to be a certain way. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that my teen years were wrought with self-destruction and pain–however, I never wanted that to reflect on my dad.

The pressure put on pastor’s children leads either to “performing” as perfect models, or running the other direction and giving up completely. One day, just a couple of years ago, a nationwide Christian radio station was discussing pastor’s kids on the air. The phone calls “joking” or complaining about the kids almost made me want scream. I wrote a letter to the station and expressed how deeply hurtful that was.

I wanted my own children to have permission to cultivate and navigate their own relationships with Jesus. I didn’t want them pretending in order to “look the part”. That didn’t stop the outside pressure, but I have defended them more than once by pointing out that doctors’ kids still get sick, dentists’ kids still get cavities, and neither the kid or their parents are judged for it. What a gift it would be to let pastors’ kids be kids without judgment or unrealistic expectations. I’m in my mid-fifties and still recovering from being a PK.

As for being a pastor’s wife–my friends know never to introduce me that way to anyone. As soon as that “title” is shared, authentic conversation goes out the window. It’s a weird and uncomfortable thing. I want to be introduced as “my friend, Luanne.”

At church, when I am introduced as the pastor’s wife, I ask people not to hold that against me and to let go of any pre-conceived notions that they might have, because I’m not any of those things. I would rather get to know real people and let people get to know the real me–then if they learn that I’m the pastor’s wife, it’s not so weird because they already know that I’m normal. And one other thing–I don’t serve in my church because I’m the pastor’s wife. I serve because I love Jesus, and like any other lay person, I am using my gifts in the body because I love Him.

Unrealistic expectations and pressures put on pastors and their families was one of the things that was difficult for Jonathan and Jeaneece. Expectations that pastors/leaders are somehow supposed to have all the gifts, do all the things, and if they are not perfect or doing it well, the large target on their back is shot at ferociously.

On the flip side of the issue of unrealistic expectations, there are pastors who use their role to exert power and influence, and who sometimes abuse that power and harm many in the process.

Jonathan, with incredible passion and pain shared about his experiences on church staffs by stating: “My relationship with Jesus got dumped on over and over again. This is supposed to be the place where we come share that love–not about stupid arguments. I didn’t get into this to run a church. I didn’t want it.” During the second service he said  he had seen too much “self-righteous, religious garbage–fighting over ridiculous things and the church huddled together to try to make ourselves more comfortable while there are thousands on the outside in need of what we have.”

His righteous indignation is spot on. He loves Jesus deeply. He made attempts to redirect elders and pastors who were sidetracked. He was told to “shut up”. The stress caused symptoms that mimicked heart attacks. Jeaneece, finally said to him, “Jonathan, we’ve had enough. We need to be done.” and then she looked at us and stated, “It was toxic.”

It was toxic. The church was toxic.

Jeaneece, in talking about that season,  reminded us of the time when the prophet Elijah ran and hid.

He begged the Lord, “I’ve had enough. Just let me die! I’m no better off than my ancestors.”  Then he lay down in the shade and fell asleep.  Suddenly an angel woke him up and said, “Get up and eat.”  Elijah looked around, and by his head was a jar of water and some baked bread. He sat up, ate and drank, then lay down and went back to sleep. Soon the Lord’s angel woke him again and said, “Get up and eat, or else you’ll get too tired to travel.”  So Elijah sat up and ate and drank. The food and water made him strong enough to walk forty more days. At last, he reached Mount Sinai,  the mountain of God,  and he spent the night there in a cave.  (1 Kings 19:4-9)

The Lord sent an angel to minister to Elijah. He was gentle with Elijah. He met Elijah in his despair. And a few verses later the Lord spoke to Elijah in a still small voice, refreshed Elijah, encouraged Elijah, and gently called him back.

Elijah wasn’t the only person in scripture who wanted to die in the middle of a ministry career. The Apostle Paul did too.  In his second letter to the Corinthians he wrote:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.  (1:8)

Paul had mean, religious people stirring up trouble everywhere he went in his ministry.  Jesus did too–mean religious people who had an agenda, were willing to buddy up to the Roman government to get their way, were willing to lie and listen to false testimony (read about the night time, unlawful “trial” of Jesus), in order to kill him and retain their power.

And dear ones, it is still happening today. Like Jonathan and Jeaneece, it grieves me deeply.

Religion makes people mean. The Holy Spirit transforms people into the likeness of Jesus.

Religion is issues focused. Jesus is people focused.

Religion follows agendas. The Holy Spirit leads lovers of Jesus to follow His ways.

Religion has no heart. Being a new creation in Christ means that the heart of Jesus is in us–the heart that beats with the intent that all people experience His love through our love.

Speaking in generalities, the corporate church is not introducing the real Jesus to the world. We are loud about political parties. We are loud about concrete commandments being posted in public spaces. We are loud about who is in and who is out.  We are loud as we shame people who have made decisions we disagree with. We are loud, and we are mean.

Inside our walls we argue about music styles, carpet colors, who gets to use which tables, ridiculous temporal things, while-as Jonathan noted, thousands of people are desperate for what we have.

We are toxic.

It hurts my heart to write those words. Over the centuries, we have lost our way. We are having affairs with many things, while forgetting that we are the bride of Jesus.

The Lord is faithful in every generation to have prophetic voices that call us back to single-hearted devotion to Him. Jonathan and Jeaneece have that voice. It’s been costly. The religious resist the prophets, and the prophets pay a high price.

In Matthew 23 Jesus lamented over the hypocrisy of  the religious. He finished his lament with these words:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me.

Will we listen to the voices that He is sending us in this generation? Will we let go of religion, of agendas, of issues? Our real mission is clear. Jesus made it clear.  Love God. Love people. Model His life. Proclaim good news to the poor. Proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind. Set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18). Go everywhere and teach people to love God and love people–do this, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In doing this, God’s Kingdom will come and His will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

And if you are a prophet who’s had enough,  Jesus says to you:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Matthew 11: 28-30, The Message.

Thank you Jonathan and Jeaneece. God will not waste your pain.

–Luanne

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Dear Church–Philippians 4:8-9

Finally, believers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable and worthy of respect, whatever is right and confirmed by God’s word, whatever is pure and wholesome, whatever is lovely and brings peace, whatever is admirable and of good repute; if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think continually on these things [center your mind on them, and implant them in your heart], and the God [who is the source] of peace and well-being will be with you.  (Phil. 4:8-9 Amplified)

As I typed out the scripture above, I could feel within myself a deep longing to do better about living with the mindset that Paul is encouraging in those verses, and a deep desire to see the followers of Christ, the Church,  live like that. Our actions flow from our minds.  Taking our thoughts captive, renewing our minds, having the mind of Christ–these are all concepts that we are encouraged to put into practice, and we have the Holy Spirit living in us who truly does give us the power (the energy) that we need to live godly lives. But man–the mind is a battlefield!

In preparing for his sermon, Pastor John did a Google search and typed in the words: “Why are Christians so…”  The responses that come up are: mean, judgmental, miserable, intolerant…, yet Jesus said that his followers will be known by our love. What has happened? How did we get so off track-and what can we do to get back?

I think it’s super important that we each pay close attention to the voices that we are allowing to “disciple” us. To be discipled means to be taught. To be a disciple of someone means that you learn from them, that you model what they do. I’m afraid that in this culture of constant chatter, constant noise, constant opinions, choosing sides, etc….we are quickly digressing.

The Apostle Paul encourages us to be discipled by him when he writes: The things which you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things [in daily life], and he tells us that the result will be the peace of God in our lives. When the peace of God rules in our lives, our mindset–our heartset becomes about the flourishing of others, and, as Jesus said in his sermon on the mount–the peacemakers will be blessed by being called–or recognized as children of God. (Mt. 5:9)

Pastor John pointed out something that has frustrated me for quite some time which I believe has led to our meanness, our misery, our judgmental attitudes and our intolerance. Somehow in our individualistic western mindset we have made Christianity about “self” rather than about building God’s kingdom. We’ve made personal salvation the main point–when personal salvation, or entering into a relationship with Jesus is the beginning point–the new birth that leads to a new way of life that is completely others focused. It is impossible to read Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the book of Acts and come to the conclusion that the ministry of Jesus is about self. The ministry of Jesus is about God’s kingdom coming and His will being done on earth as it is in heaven…and we’re the plan.

Yes–it all starts at the cross. Without the cross, we have no hope for a relationship with God. But there is a cross, and it not only reminds us of the death and resurrection of Jesus, it is also a reminder of how we are to live in complete and total surrender to God.

Pastor John gave us three very practical ways to look at the cross:

  1. As a plus sign. In mathematical equations, the plus sign indicates things that are added. There is tremendous personal benefit in coming into a relationship with Jesus–no doubt about that. Jesus adds incomparably more to our lives than I think we can even fully recognize.  But the plus sign also serves as a reminder that we are to be about the business of bringing God’s peace, love, and message of His grace to those around us. His heart is for everyone to know about the life that He offers through Christ.
  2. As a minus sign.  Picture the crossbar as a minus sign (a takeaway), and the vertical  bar as the letter “I”.  If I take myself and my will out of the equation so that God’s will can be done in me and through me, I am much more inclined to be the light of the world and salt of the earth that Jesus said I would be. When I’m not worried about or focused on myself, I am much more inclined to lift Him up, and He said that when we lift Him up, He will draw all people to Himself.
  3. Picture the vertical bar as the symbol that God has raised us up to a place we could never be on our own, and the crossbar as the reminder to reach out beyond ourselves to others.

Pastor John shared with us the results of a study put out by the Center for Attitudinal Healing that stated all conflict begins with a mindset of “lack”; focusing on what we don’t have and allowing our thoughts to be obsessed over how to get what we don’t have. As I began to ponder that thought I saw a great deal of truth in it. Becoming aware can help a great deal. When we begin to feel angsty inside, rather than lashing out and reacting, can we begin to sit in that angst and get to the bottom of what it is that we think we lack?  Is it God’s love? Is it honor? Is it respect? Is it material goods? Is it a certain talent?  Is it political power and persuasion? Is it fairness? Is it inner peace? Is it not getting our way? What is it?  If we don’t figure this out, it will lead us to anger, bitterness, and conflict. Every war ever fought–whether a personal internal war, a domestic war, a cultural war, or war on a global scale is about someone trying to gain what they “lack”–whether lands, or power, or the obliteration or oppression of an entire people group so that the “conqueror” can have dominion and supremacy, or (on a much smaller scale) control over the remote control, a mindset of lack has led to it. Think about it…

This same Center for Attitudinal Healing said that the solution to conflict-the pathway to peace- is to learn to love others well, and to receive the love that is extended to you.   The Center for Attitudinal Healing is not a Christian Center–they are secular, yet their approach sounds just like Jesus.

Does it work? This week I read an article on nbcnews.com about a former white supremacist, former grand dragon in the KKK, former Nazi,  who was part of the Unite the Right Charlottesville march last year, but whose life has changed completely because of a woman of color who offered kindness to him as he was struggling from heat exhaustion at that rally. Her kindness began to change the narrative in his head, which led to him begin having conversations with an African-American neighbor, who just so happened to be a pastor–resulting in this former white supremacist coming into a relationship with Christ in an African American church. He was baptized in that church, he belongs to that church, and is now telling those who he used to recruit to get out of the business of hate–that it will ruin their lives. (Ex-KKK member denounces hate groups one year after rallying in Charlottesville  nbcnews.com). Love works–just like Jesus said that it would.

So, what does all of this have to do with this week’s verses? Everything.

In every situation, are we (am I/are you)  willing to have the mind of Christ? Are we willing to renew our minds and think with the mind of the Spirit rather than the mind of the flesh? Are we willing to pause, get our thoughts under control, examine what’s going on under the surface, surrender our wills to God’s greater will and purpose, and “be the change that we want to see in the world”? Are we willing to keep our minds focused on the things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy?  Are we willing to put into practice the things that Paul is encouraging the Church to put into practice in his letter? If so, the peace–the shalom of God– will be with us and will naturally spill out to all of those around us-leading to their flourishing in all ways, and we will be known as Jesus’ followers by our love. His way is always the better way, and to know His way means to know Him- our true, noble, righteous, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy Savior.

–Luanne

We’ve said it over and over again since we began this series in Philippians: It is all about Jesus. And this week is no exception. Paul is writing to the church and exhorting them (and us) to think rightly so that God and His peace would be with them. Our passage, these two short verses, do not directly reference Jesus. But marinating in the words reveals what we have seen repeatedly in this letter–it all revolves around Jesus. Let’s look at the words Paul uses to tell the Church what to think on:

“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable and worthy of respect, whatever is right and confirmed by God’s word, whatever is pure and wholesome, whatever is lovely and brings peace, whatever is admirable and of good repute; if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise…”

True. Honorable. Worthy of respect. Right. Confirmed by God’s word. Pure. Wholesome. Lovely. Peace-bringing. Admirable. Of good repute. Excellent. Worthy of praise.

What do these words describe? I could use the word honorable to describe my husband. I might say the fresh snow is pure white, or use it in reference to the water in a mountain lake. I could call food or old T.V. shows wholesome. There are MANY things I call lovely–skyscapes, butterflies, flowers, birds, my dear friend who wrote the first half of this post… peace is used frequently and in a variety of contexts. We can call hard work admirable, and use the descriptor of good repute in reference to candidates we are backing. Excellent is used often in the world of academia as well as in athletics. Worthy of praise is less often used than the others, but we could find areas where it, too, could apply.

But can you think of one thing that all of these words together describe? One thing that fully embodies the meanings of each adjective?

I can. In fact, I can think of two…

Jesus.

And us, the Church, when we’re living in the fullness of His life in us.

These words do describe the things I mentioned above. But none of those things, on their own, fully embody the meaning of the word used to describe them. At least not when held up to the standard of Jesus himself.

So, without overreaching or hypothesizing too much, I think it’s fairly safe to say that when Paul told the Church to “think on these things”, he was encouraging them to keep their minds trained on the life, ways, and person of Jesus. Pastor John mentioned that Paul didn’t go into the meanings of the words he chose. He didn’t explain what he meant.  He wrote the words and moved on. Maybe that’s because if we know the real Jesus, we already have the most complete picture of what these words mean. Maybe his readers knew that. Because he goes on to say  “Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing.” (vs. 9a, NLT) What did the church at Philippi (and what do we…) learn, receive from, hear and see Paul doing? Ultimately, what Paul modeled was what being a disciple looks and sounds like. He taught and gave what he learned and received from the person and ways of Jesus. The words he wrote in his letters are sometimes difficult to understand and to swallow, and we read things in them that appear to contradict each other–he was human, after all, and his work is most likely not without its flaws. He knew this about himself–he understood his own humanity, his own brokenness. And so he did two distinct things: He pointed his readers always to Jesus himself as the authority and standard. And–and it’s a big and–he had the audacity to imply that we, the Church, could actually live up to the standards of Christ, by the power of the Spirit at work within us. NOT by striving or trying harder to achieve all that we aren’t. But by accessing the power (energy) of the Spirit.

I also believe that “these things” include one another, when we’re operating out of the mind of Christ. We don’t think of one another this way if we’re operating out of our self-focused mindsets of lack. But if we understand the ways of the Kingdom, the life and character of Jesus, his way of abundant love that is available to us, then what we see when we look at each other is the Imago Dei. The image of God in each one, our shared humanity, made beautiful in the Agape love of Christ.

Luanne wrote above, “It is impossible to read Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the book of Acts and come to the conclusion that the ministry of Jesus is about self. The ministry of Jesus is about God’s kingdom coming and His will being done on earth as it is in heaven…”

None of us could refute that statement. It truly is impossible to come to the conclusion that the ministry of Jesus is about self if we actually read these accounts of his life. Nothing that Jesus said, did, or taught is responsible for the self-absorbed, I want more, individualistic “faith” many of us find ourselves trapped in today. In fact, it is precisely because we have ignored (if we’ve read them at all) the words and life of Jesus that we find the Church in the condition she is in today… full of people the world around us identify as “mean, judgmental, miserable, intolerant…”

We wonder why our lives are filled with conflict and chaos and we long for the peace we hear preached from the pulpit, the peace that Paul writes about at the end of our passage. He tells us to think on “these things”, to put into practice what we’ve heard and seen. And, “Then the God of peace will be with you.” (vs. 9b, NLT)

Remember when I said that the whole passage points us to Jesus? These final words are no different. If we read these verses and don’t pause to ponder their deeper meaning, we can read these two verses through an “If this, then that” filter. It sounds like cause and effect. Do this, think on these things, act this way–and then you’ll have the peace of God with you. I believe it’s a bit more nuanced than that…

In Ephesians, Paul writes these words:

For he himself is our peace… (Eph. 2:14a)

This verse has been a favorite of mine for many years because it always reminds me that peace isn’t a thing, or even a state of being. Peace is a person–the person of Jesus. He, Jesus, is our peace. He doesn’t give us peace. He IS peace. If we have Him (and He is accessible to any and all who desire to know Him–this has nothing to do with church and everything to do with relationship), then we have peace. Period.

So what does this verse mean then? And what about all the times we feel like peace is beyond our reach, even though we know Jesus?

I think, like many things we write about, this has a lot to do with choice. I can have a refrigerator full of food, but if I never open the door and take out food to eat, I’m going to feel hungry despite the fullness that is available. In regard to peace though, the study that John presented to us, that Luanne referred to, better shows us why we often find ourselves peace-less.

It is all about the mindset we choose. Do we choose lack? Or love? Is there never enough? Or is there abundance? Jesus, if we know Him, is always with us. His life lives in us. We always have Him–and He IS our peace. But the thing about the life of Jesus within us is that it’s like a faucet. The supply of water is no less present in a faucet that is turned off versus one that is on. But the water only flows when the faucet is open. And do you know the quickest way to turn off the water of Jesus’ life within you? Get focused on yourself. Because self-focused living is completely contrary to Kingdom living. It is impossible to experience the peace, the Shalom, the setting-all-things-right life of Jesus while focused on self. When the secular study declared that giving and receiving love is the pathway to peace, they hit on the central principle of the Kingdom, the only standard that mattered to Jesus and His ministry because everything else flows from it: Love God (which is impossible without learning to receive the love He has for you); Love your neighbor (Everyone. ALL people, everywhere–including yourself)Giving and receiving love is the opposite of living a life focused on self. And it is the only way to access the peace of Jesus that is always living within us. The well of peace does not run dry because it’s full of the eternal, unending, forever-flowing living water that is Jesus himself.

I don’t mean to diminish or minimize the letter to the Philippians by repeatedly stating that it’s all about Jesus. In fact, the opposite is true. Jesus is everywhere, if we’ll only look. And He is the authority, the rock, the foundation, that the Bible and every other created thing is built upon. Seeing how every word Paul wrote is made complete in the person of Jesus expands my heart and my mind, as well as my view of scripture–because I’m finding Him there. I hope it does the same for you, as we continue to dive into the depths together.

This week, think on “these things”: Jesus—in all of His beautifully simple complexity, and those all around you who bear His image and inhale and exhale His Life. As you do, love will replace the mindset of lack, and Peace will overflow…

–Laura

Image result for giving and receiving love

Dear Church #3: Philippians 1:19-30

 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Phil. 1:21)

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. (Phil. 1:27a)

 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him… (Phil. 1:29)

You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. (Matthew 5:10, Message)

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. (Matthew 5:11)

 

Luanne left us with some questions to ponder last week:

“Is our love for Jesus and our desire to make His love known to the world the driving force of our lives? Are we willing to be hated because we look so much like Him that the world, including the religious community, doesn’t understand us at all?” 

She also explained to us what “agape” love looks like–and that God loves every single human being with that kind of love. And she challenged us to do the same. To love unconditionally regardless of whether or not we agree with positions, orientations, political leanings, ideology, theology, or anything else that would drive us apart rather than together.

And this week, Pastor John took it one step further…

Are we willing to not only love all others, but to live out the mission of Christ to the point that we would die on behalf of them, the way that He gave His life for us?

There are some new questions rolling around in my head this week…

What are you living for?

What are you willing to die for?

What do you really believe?

Where does your citizenship lie?

Are you willing to suffer and to consider suffering a gift?

And a repeat from last week: Who are you offending?

Philippians 1:21 is a verse many of us are familiar with. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” In communities of faith, we hear it, say it, sing it–but do we live it? Do we even understand what it means? Or is it one of those verses we throw around without pausing to consider the implications it holds for our day-to-day lives? 

Pastor John broke it down for us on Sunday. The words in the verse are fairly straightforward, with the exception of one. That Paul chose to use the word “Christos“, translated “Christ” in English, is what makes this particular verse so important. The word carries within it Jesus’ identity as Messiah, deliverer, freedom-giver. John said that it refers to the purpose and mission of Jesus, with the idea of modeling what Jesus is all about. And what is His mission? As we heard on Sunday, the mission of God, carried out through the person of Jesus, is to set the captives free. ALL the captives. “To live is Christ” is to live as He lived. To embody His mission. It is living in such a way that we leverage all that we are on behalf of all others. It is to die to ourselves and to our inclinations toward comfort, ease, and fluffy faith. It is to identify with our Savior, who so identifies with His people that, when they met on the road to Damascus, He asked Saul, “Why are you persecuting ME?” We are invited to take all that Jesus did (and does) for us… and do the same for others.

The invitation is costly. It is hard. It stands in opposition to every self-preserving and self-promoting notion that drives every one of us. But according to Paul, the invitation to suffer is a gift.

 

 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him… (Phil. 1:29)

The word “granted” in the Greek is charizomai , which is defined this way:

“to do something pleasant or agreeable (to one), to do a favour to, gratify, to show one’s self gracious, kind, benevolent, to grant forgiveness, to pardon, to give graciously, give freely, bestow”

The root word of charizomai is charis, which is most often translated “grace”. I love that. Jesus has graced us, gifted us with the opportunity to believe in him. We learned on Sunday that this is not say-the-sinner’s-prayer and stamp your heavenly passport belief. In this passage of scripture, when Paul writes about being “convinced” and “believing”, it goes way beyond head-and even heart-knowledge. It is a belief that fully trusts, that stakes everything on that belief, and that takes steps to act on it. When Jesus invites us to believe in Him, this is what we are invited to. Not a systematic theology of rules that keep our behavior in check. Rather, a belief that burns like fire within us and moves us out toward the margins in the footsteps of the One who couldn’t stay away from the margins and the marginalized He found there.

I think in our western understanding of Christianity, we readily accept the believing but take a hard pass on the suffering. But if we really understood what true belief entails, we would find that believing and suffering are branches of the same vine. In fact, the kind of belief I described above will almost certainly lead us into suffering. Into persecution, even. It definitely won’t keep us “safe”. But Paul calls it a gift, a grace, to have the opportunity to believe in and suffer for the One who gave everything for us. Pastor John said on Sunday that most followers of Jesus would agree that the cross is at the center of our faith. But many would say that is because it’s where we find forgiveness and salvation, where we come to the end of ourselves and believe in Jesus as our Savior. John didn’t disagree that the cross is at the center of our faith, but he asserted that it’s not an end, but a beginning. A way of life. The place where belief and suffering come together to lead us into new life in Christ–a life that we get to give on behalf of others.

Paul names this invitation a gift. Grace. Why? Let’s see what Jesus had to say about it…

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. (Matthew 5:10-11)

The Message words verse 10 this way:

You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. 

Jesus says we are blessed when we are persecuted because of righteousness, when we’re insulted because of Him. That the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are committed to God, and that the persecution drives us deeper into God’s Kingdom.

The gift is blessing, presence, the very kingdom of heaven. The word for “blessed” in this verse is also defined as “fortunate” and “happy”. I think it’s important that we understand the meaning of a few other words in this passage, too.

What does it mean to be persecuted, really? Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean…

Stu Garrard, author of Words From the Hill (a fantastic book that takes a fresh look at the Beatitudes), writes in the book about a conversation he had with Jeremy Courtney, the CEO of Preemptive Love:

“I asked him [Jeremy] about persecution and what it looks like to him. [He said:]

There’s a risk with this conversation. It’s like walking on a razor’s edge. There’s a way to talk about persecution that sort of gives us permission to become irreverent and jerks when we don’t get our own way. Not winsome or loving or creative or culturally engaged, and if we get pushed back we say, “See, they are persecuting us! Look at them–look at what they’ve done wrong.” When the truth is that we’re not loving and we’re not reaching out.”

We live in a time where real persecution does exist all over the world. Many people experience it for a variety of reasons. Followers of Jesus are still dying as martyrs in some countries. But sometimes, we do exactly what Jeremy articulated. We cry persecution and point fingers at those who won’t submit to our demands or bend to our agenda or who simply don’t let us have our way. That’s not persecution.

The word translated “persecute” is the Greek word dioko. It means:

to make to run or flee, put to flight, drive away; to run swiftly in order to catch a person or thing, to run after; to pursue (in a hostile manner) in any way whatever to harass

This definition is fairly broad and applicable to a lot of situations, except for the why that Jesus outlined.

He says in these two verses, “because of righteousness” and “because of Me”. The word used for righteousness here is dikaiosyne. The root of this word means “equity”. So, “blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness” is not about our good behavior or our personal holiness being challenged by the “bad” behavior of others, but rather, it’s about making things right for all people, everywhere. It’s about leveraging our lives the way that Jesus did. And then He goes on to say, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me…” The “because of Me” is extremely important. It goes back to what Luanne wrote about last week. Why do people hate us? Is it because we are embodying the mission of Jesus and working on behalf of freedom and equity for all people? If so, Jesus says we are blessed, and the kingdom is ours. But if we are hated because we look too little like Jesus, we can’t say that we are suffering persecution. Being told to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple is not the same as being persecuted. Giving others whose lifestyle we disagree with basic human rights does not mean Christians are being persecuted. Taking “under God” out of the pledge of allegiance or “in God we trust” off of our currency, as some have suggested we do, does not equal persecution. Separating religion and government (church & state) does not mean Christians are being persecuted. Instituting laws that protect and make provision for vulnerable “others” is not persecution of our “values”. And Starbucks not writing “Merry Christmas” on their cups is absolutely NOT persecution. This is a short list, but I’ll stop here. I think you get my point.

Jesus said we are blessed when we are persecuted because of Him. As we understand more and more about who He is–His ways, His kingdom, and His love for ALL people–and as we identify with Him and take on His mission of setting captives free, persecution will happen. Because we’ll be living out the radical ways of Jesus. But NOT because our happy, religious, self-righteous, rule-following bubbles are being popped.

Stu Garrard wrote these words:

“As we see the world differently, we can resist the urge to go take sides, even though that’s the path of least resistance. When we find ourselves living as peacemakers in the world, this kind of living so easily leads to persecution because we all know the way the world works–it wants us to pick a side and it’s not going to go down so well when we don’t pick a side and we want to see everyone flourish. And so then we find ourselves not being picked for a side, because fear runs the show, and saying and showing with our lives that love actually casts out fear–well, that’s pretty bad for business. So persecution for us might not look like it does for others in far-off lands. It might just be that we are excluded from the dominant story of the dominant culture… Holy troublemakers are people who are compelled to live a life worthy of a pushback–a life worthy of persecution… They are often misfits and misunderstood. Holy troublemakers understand that where there’s persecution, there is suffering. And when we suffer for the cause of righteousness and justice, we connect with the suffering of the greatest misfit of all time.”

So. To live is Christ… To truly live is to be connected to the heart of Jesus, to His mission of setting captives free. To leverage our lives on behalf of others because we know that the invitation to belief and suffering is a gift of grace. To endure persecution because we look and act too much like the One we follow. To truly live is to die to ourselves and to awaken to new life that freely gives itself away so others can live. And we’re meant to live this way together. 

Dear Church, can you imagine how the world would change if we actually lived this way? It makes my heart pound to think about it. The invitation has been given to each of us. What is our response?

–Laura

To live is Christ…

He stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’  Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’  (Luke 4:17-20)

Welcome to the beginning of the Kingdom of Heaven coming on earth. Welcome to the new way of doing life.

After Jesus spoke these words, the listeners in the synagogue were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips, yet a few short verses later the crowd was furious with Jesus, so furious that they drove him out of town and wanted to throw him down a cliff. Why? Because he reminded the Israelites in the synagogue that in Elijah’s time, during severe famine, God did not send Elijah to help an Israelite–God sent Elijah to help a widow in Zarephath, and God did not heal Hebrew lepers through Elisha, but Naaman, the Syrian, was healed.

His listeners could not believe that God might include the “outsiders” in His kingdom, and it made them murderously furious. There are things going on this very day that are contrary to the principles of the Kingdom of God. There are hot-button issues that are creating fury. Where do you land on these issues? What are you wrestling with?

To live is Christ…

Laura reminded us above that Paul’s choosing to use the word “Christ” indicates His purpose, His mission, His ways.  Dear Church–His mission is what we are to be about. Jesus’ heart for everyone put him at odds with those who wanted him to fit in their box. And on the day He was crucified, He still had a heart of compassion for those who misunderstood–Father forgive them…(Luke 23:34). 

The Apostle Paul, Peter, John and others model for us that when they were persecuted because of the mission of Jesus, they did not respond in hateful ways hollering about their rights. They continued to talk about Jesus. They shared with their hostile listeners how to come into a relationship with Him. Some did. Others had them beaten, thrown into prison, and killed.

Dear Church–whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. (Ph 1:27)

“conduct yourselves” literally means in the Greek  be a citizen of…

So here is the question: Which kingdom do we exalt most by the way we live?  Do we understand what it means to truly live as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven?

Dear Church– it doesn’t look like the systems of the world. We have got to know this. We have got to know this. We have got to know this.

Paul encourages the church to:

Stand firm in one spirit

To contend together as one person for the faith of the gospel

To stand courageously, not being frightened by those who oppose us. (1:27)

What is he saying?  He is saying–Dear Church, be unified around the message and mission of Christ; fight together as one for those around you to believe, to have faith, to be convinced that God loves them; let them know that the crucifixion of Jesus is the turning point, the veil has been torn, there is now no separation between God and humankind, and invite them into a new life fueled by the Holy Spirit, full of God’s love and divine purpose which is available for everyone. Teach them to love, to minister to the poor, the prisoner, the blind, the oppressed, and to live and work for the flourishing of everyone. Yes, everyone.

To do this, we must each know the real Jesus. Laura wrote about this above and I want to reiterate it; to believe in Jesus is not about having the right knowledge about Him. It’s not being able to recite the apostle’s creed or any other list. Belief/faith is conviction that leads to action.

Brennan Manning in his book “The Signature of Jesus” writes…”that Jesus marveled at the Roman centurion’s ‘faith’ means that he was surprised by the man’s deep trust, not by the way he could rattle off a list of beliefs…And when Jesus reproved the disciples for their ‘lack of faith,’ he meant their lack of trust and courage…Faith was courageous trust in Jesus and in the Good News which he lived and preached.”

Do we know Jesus well enough to be courageous for Him and His ways? His all inclusive, loving ways? Do we care about people more than we care about policies? Are we willing to be courageous, to be different, to be opposed?

I find it sobering to think of the visual that the Philippian church must have had when they read what Paul was saying to them about contending together for Jesus.

Philippi was a Roman colony with a Roman arena in the midst of it. The Roman arena was the pinnacle of Roman culture in colonized cities. The power of Rome was displayed in the arenas. Messages from Caesar were delivered in the arenas. Jesus’ followers were put to death in the arenas.

Paul doesn’t tell the believers in Philippi  to fight back against Rome. He tells them to contend together so that others will see Jesus and give their lives to Him. He tells them to be courageous as they are opposed. And, as Laura wrote above, Paul reminds them that they have been graced with the opportunity to not only believe in Christ, but to suffer for Him. The Message translation writes it like this: There’s far more to this life than trusting in Christ. There’s also suffering for him. And the suffering is as much a gift as the trusting. (v. 29)

To be a follower of Jesus is to live a selfless life. There is cost involved. Pastor John pointed out that I cannot live for Jesus and for myself at the same time. I cannot live for others and for myself at the same time.

He pointed out that our “arena” is where we live, wrestle, fall, fail, get back up, grow, die…  My arena is my life, your arena is your life. Our “contending as one” arena is the Church. How are we living in our arenas?  Are we letting the culture of Christ shape our arenas? Are the spectators, the citizens of this world, seeing Jesus?

Dear Church–Jesus told us that the world will hate us for doing life His way. The world will hate us for righteousness sake. The world will hate for for being rightly related with God and leveraging our lives to be rightly related with others. Are we willing to be misunderstood for the sake of His kingdom? Are we willing to be persecuted for His name’s sake?  If so, Jesus tells us that we will be blessed.

Sacrifice, suffering, joy, it all goes together. And as we lay our lives down and lift the life of Jesus up, we become the answer to His prayer…may Your kingdom come and Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…and we give all we are to move toward the glorious day when the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ… (Rev. 11:15)

Dear Church–conduct yourselves (be a citizen) worthy of the gospel of Christ…

To live is Christ…

–Luanne

Jesus Loves Me, This I Know

I’ve been in a bit of a funk for a few days. Maybe for longer than I care to admit. I’ve been distracted by many things, and I can easily focus on the distractions–the areas in my life where I am discontent, the long winter season in Wyoming and how I long for spring, the distance that I live from my children and grandchild, relationships that seem difficult in this season, and a wall (self-constructed) between God and me, so Jonathan’s sermon was just what my thirsty soul needed.

On Sunday, Jonathan Schmidt shared his own journey with us beginning with his call into the ministry 32 years ago, through his seasons of running and God’s continuing pursuit, and then the season of pastoring a church and losing sight of his First Love while maintaining what he referred to as Church Incorporated. He was not blaming the church; he recognized that he had become entrenched in the “doing”. He had let other things come in and take his focus and had forgotten the call to love God first.

He reminded us that we can be in the church and lose our way, because we forget to love God first. He reminded us that it is easy to walk away from the simplicity of “Jesus loves me” and get lost in Bible Study, ministry activities, maintaining programs, and doing.

Bible study, ministry activities and the like are good things, but they are no substitute for living from the place of knowing that God loves us first, and that because of His great love we can love Him in return with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and we can love our neighbors as ourselves. He reminded us that all of the Old Testament, the law and the prophets, are fulfilled by loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving neighbor as ourselves. ALL of the Old Testament, ALL of the message of Christ fulfilled in those two things. (1st John 4:19, Mt 22:37-40, Luke 10:30)

Why do we complicate it so much when it’s really this simple:

  1. God loves us. He proved it in Christ. Believe it, embrace it, let the Holy Spirit have access to your life.
  2. When we know that God loves us, we live from a new place, a new identity, and we can love ourselves in a healthy way because we are loved.
  3. That love spills over to those around us, they take notice, they desire to know this love, we teach them what we have learned from Christ (making disciples Mt. 28:19-20), and they come into relationship with Christ continuing the beautiful cycle.

Simple–and it all starts with love.

A number of years ago I was driving across rural Kansas trying to find something to listen to on the radio (that’s all I had access to back in the day). I came upon a sermon that sounded intriguing , and heard the pastor say that it’s not enough for Jesus to be Lord and Savior–He must also be our treasure–and then I lost the station. Some miles later I was still trying to find a radio station and I came upon the same sermon at the same moment, heard the same line and then lost the station.

All of a sudden I wasn’t interested in finding a radio station. I knew that God was speaking to me, and I asked Him to teach me what it means for Jesus to truly be my treasure.

What I treasure I love, I think about, I tend to, I enjoy.

Jesus told us that where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also. (Mt. 6:21)  Did my relationship with Jesus indicate that he is my treasure? That I love him, live for him, and enjoy him above all else? Hmmm. I had some work to do. I had been in love with Jesus before, and I recognized that I needed to return to Him again as my first love. (Rev 2:4). It took a brief moment of confession and expressing my desire to love Him deeply asking Him to meet me where I was. He did–the funk lifted and I experienced beautiful closeness with Him again.

Fast forward to my recent funk. I had begun the current “funk-lifting” process on Saturday morning, and Jonathan’s sermon led me to the next step, so confession and expression is what I did again after his message.

Jonathan shared with us that he had a mentor who asked him: Do you think people really want to spend eternity with Jesus?  We’ll be with Him for eternity–if we don’t want to be with Him now, why would we want to be with Him for eternity?  Hmmm.

That question reminded me of something I heard in another sermon a few years ago:

“The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—
is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the
friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and
all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties
you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no
human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with
heaven, if Christ were not there? ” (John Piper)

That’s quite a question and quickly reveals where our hearts and priorities are.

Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that God has set eternity in our hearts. John 17:3 tells us that “this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”  John 13:35 tells us that by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

 We cannot love one another if we don’t know God’s love for us and respond to His love by loving Him heart, soul, mind, and strength  It feels pretty important, pretty foundational that we know those things.

There is a tremendous difference between the type of relationship described above and being religious. Jonathan’s Church Incorporated dilemma which led him to leave his church and begin the journey back to his First Love was the result of religious activity.

Religion kills. There is no joy, no life in religious activities. Religion leaves folks burned out, frustrated, and angry at the world and all the people who don’t see things the way they do.  Love, on the other hand, gives life, embraces beauty, draws people in, stays with people in their mess, learns from others, and chooses relationship.

Religion turns people into projects and Christianity into a list of dos and don’ts. Love sees the value, the image of God, in all people, and sees Christianity as being in a real and vibrant relationship with Jesus. A relationship of fellowship, enjoyment, trust, honesty, authenticity, transparency, transformation, wrestling–no rules, no boxes to check off, just Someone to love and be loved by. Someone to get to know on a deep and intimate level.

The Apostle Paul is a great example of this. When he was religious he had position, authority, power. He was important in the eyes of the religious community. He was outspoken, and he was mean–so much so that he was totally sold out to destroying the lives of Jesus’ followers. (His story is found in the book of Acts).

Then he met Jesus. He was humbled, blinded for a few days, (a physical manifestation of the spiritual condition he had been in) and changed forever. Changed to the degree that this man of position, authority, power, “the good life”, tells us in 2nd Corinthians 11  that he has been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches…

Yet, in spite of all of those things in Chapter 4 tells us his perspective on the suffering (which we are promised as Christ followers) when he writes: our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

And in Philippians 3: 7-9 He tells us why: But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ…

Paul knew that Jesus was his treasure. He knew what Jesus meant to Him, who Jesus was to Him, and He wanted everyone else to know Jesus too.  Everything in his life, after his encounter with Jesus, flowed from the treasure of Paul’s heart, and the world was changed as a result.

Where do you find yourself today? Do you know that God loves you? It all starts there. Do you respond to His love with love? Have you wandered a bit from the simplicity of the relationship and gotten distracted by many things? Are you in a funk?

The solution? Sit in His love, let it wash over you. Talk to Him about where you’ve been and respond to His love with love for Him. You will be changed and the world will be changed. The things that matter to His heart will matter to yours, and the world will know we are His followers by our love.

–Luanne

Jonathan talked about our being “living sacrifices” in his message. He then asked us if we were trying to crawl off the altar. I immediately thought about a verse that I have on a notecard in my bathroom. I read it every day and pray it regularly. It is Psalm 5:3. I have the Message version on my notecard. It reads this way:

 “Every morning I lay out the pieces of my life on your altar and watch for fire to descend.”

I put this verse up about a year ago. It’s not one I could have prayed honestly many years ago. Luanne mentioned above what Jonathan said so beautifully in his message. He said that we have to learn to “sit in the love of God”. I love this thought for a lot of reasons, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to take the liberty to expand it a bit…

See, I think we continue to crawl off of the altar—we move away from offering ourselves daily as living sacrifices—until we’ve braved sitting in the fire of God’s love. We climb up on the altar and with faltering voices say, “He-he-here, I am God… waiting for you…”  But as He approaches with His white-hot love, the heat of His presence causes us to slink off the altar and crawl to a… safer distance. Until we brave the heat for the first time. It’s not until we let the fire of His love engulf us that we realize-like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did in the furnace-that we won’t be consumed. That Jesus meets us within the fire and it’s while we sit there with Him that we become unbound. Once we experience Him in this way, our fear of the fire is replaced by the assurance of His goodness and our hearts begin to burn white-hot in response to His blazing love for us. Only then does the altar become a place we long to go and meet with Him, offer our lives to Him, daily.

I remember when I began to get comfortable with laying every piece of my life on the altar, offering all of me as a living sacrifice…  It was during one of the most painful seasons of my life. The trouble (that Jonathan reminded us is a guarantee, part of the deal when we give our lives to following Jesus…) surrounded me. My heart was broken for so many different reasons—rejection, betrayal, problems in my marriage, family tensions, financial tension, a ridiculous amount of fear; among other things… I have never felt more alone, more unsure of who I was. I didn’t understand God’s love for me. The shame of my past was suffocating me. It was during that season that I resolved to wait. To lay my life out before God and wait for Him to come, fire and all. I was afraid. But the brokenness and the loneliness outweighed the fear. And I asked Him to come to me. To show me He loved me. To make me believe it. I told Him I would do whatever He asked—I just wanted to be free. To know who He was, really, and who I was in Him…

I didn’t have some grand vision… but I felt Him come close. I physically sensed His presence. He engineered playlists and laid open the pages of my bible as He directed me to things He wanted me to know. I felt the heat of His love surround me… and it was tempting to retreat. I couldn’t control this reckless love that ran toward me. And I knew that if I stayed there, if the fire fully surrounded me, everything would change. Everything needed to change… But I knew that change meant surrender. It meant pain. And while the storms of my heart couldn’t get much worse, I wasn’t sure I was ready for what His fire may burn away in my life. I was afraid. But I was desperate. And so I stayed put. I listened. And for a season, He called me His beautiful beloved. I doubted what I heard the first time, but it kept happening and I knew what I heard. I began to believe it…

As I sat in the fire of His love, he refined my heart. He rebuilt me. He spoke sweetly, intimately to me. I remember feeling so exposed, completely vulnerable-and completely, totally, known and loved. It was disarming, disorienting and freeing.

I couldn’t have prayed Psalm 5:3 until I experienced the love of Jesus this way. I wish I could say that every day when I see that verse on my cupboard door, I am willing and ready to pray it with all of my heart. But that wouldn’t be true. See, the reason that verse is taped up in my bathroom where I’ll see it every day is because I need the reminder. Even though I’ve experienced the white-hot love of Jesus that changed me-that changes everything-it’s still not natural to offer up every bit of me, every single day, and release my hold on control over myself and my life. Because I know what it can mean… When you offer all that you are and invite the fire of God to descend, you give up every right to yourself. It’s a daily dying. And it hurts…

Because sometimes, when He meets me on the altar of daily sacrifice, He tells me to do things I don’t want to do…

Stay… Go… Love her… Embrace him… Give… Speak… Start… Stop… Forgive… Let go…

He always invites me to remember that this world is not my home. That in this world I will have trouble-but I can take heart because He has overcome the world. He gives me an opportunity to say, every day, “Not my will, but yours be done…”, and I find that I rarely would choose on my own to do His will, His way.

Jonathan called himself a “reluctant prophet”, always running from the thing God was calling him to do. I think we all can be reluctant prophets. We can all at least identify with the “reluctant” part. And often, in our reluctance, we build barriers. Barriers between us and the altar we’re invited to offer ourselves on daily. Barriers that keep us from loving God with our hearts, souls, minds and strength and from loving our neighbors with that same love. We build these barriers because we want to stay safe from the trouble Jesus told us we would have in this world. Because the trouble hurts. And we don’t like pain. We do all kinds of things to try to escape it. But we can’t. Ann Voskamp writes, in her book Be the Gift,

“There isn’t a barrier in the world that can block out pain. There isn’t a wall you can build that protects you from pain. Addiction, escapism, materialism, anger, indifference—none of these can stop pain—and each one creates a pain all its own. There is no way to avoid pain. There is no way to avoid brokenness. There is absolutely no way but a broken way. Barriers that falsely advertise self-protection are guaranteed ways of self-imprisonment. Barriers that supposedly will protect your heart so it won’t break are guaranteed to break your heart anyway. Yet being brave enough to lay your heart out there to be broken, to be rejected in a thousand little ways, this may hurt like a kind of hell—but it will be holy. The only way in the whole universe to find connection… is to let your heart be broken.”

Jesus modeled this for us. He laid out His heart-knowing we would break it-that we would break Him-but it was the only way for us to be connected to Him. And He invites us to lay our hearts out, too. To follow His lead. He will never break our hearts or reject us—but He will call us to die to ourselves for the sake of others who will. And this is something we are incapable of doing if we haven’t first sat in the fire of His love. But if we know His wild, relentless, crazy love for us, if we’ve let Him break open the seed of our hearts so that we can love Him in return, it gets easier to embrace the trouble, the pain of this life. Because when we sit in His love, He becomes our treasure, as Luanne so beautifully wrote about above. And if He’s our treasure, we realize that yes, we do want to spend eternity with this Jesus that has loved us back to life and that, truly, He is what makes eternity appealing to our hearts at all. And we can exclaim with the psalmist, A single day in your courts is better than a thousand anywhere else!” (Psalm 84:10a, NLT)

–Laura

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Contingency Plan

On Sunday in the absence of our pastor, one of our elders brought the message. Jim spoke about the importance of a contingency plan and used an illustration from his work to highlight his point. Jim is the manager of the air traffic control tower in our city, and one Friday evening he received a call, which is unusual. He was told that the tower had lost its radar, phone capabilities, computer screens– basically everything that was needed in order to carry out their duties and keep passengers and crews safe. Jim asked them if they had carried out the contingency plan, which they had. He asked if they needed anything from him. They did not. They were able to function using the contingency plan, and calling Jim was part of that plan.

I looked up the definition of “contingency plan”–  according to dictionary.com this is what one is:

1. A course of action to be followed if a preferred plan fails or an existing situation changes.
2.  A plan or procedure that will take effect if an emergency occurs; emergency plan

In Jim’s example, I can’t imagine the panic that would have set in had the air traffic control tower not had a contingency plan, but because of the plan, when the unexpected happened, they were prepared, knew what to do, and were able to continue carrying out their mission of keeping planes and people safely where they needed to be.

A contingency plan is in place before the unexpected happens. Spiritually speaking, it’s good for us to have a contingency plan. Life on this fallen planet is full of the unexpected. When the unexpected happens, do you have a plan in place?

Jim’s spiritual contingency plan consisted of four parts:

1. Keep your eyes on Jesus: Jim read to us the account of the incarcerated John the Baptist sending his followers to find out from Jesus if Jesus was truly the Messiah. John was in a crisis. He was confused. He was hurting. God wasn’t doing what he had expected, and he had some questions. (Notice that he took his questions to Jesus—always a good idea in a tough season.) Jesus didn’t get angry with John or his disciples—nor did he explain John’s situation or tell him what the outcome would be—instead, he told John’s disciples: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Matthew 11:4-6)

Jesus was reminding them of what the prophet Isaiah had foretold about the Messiah, and that even though John’s personal situation was unexpected, He, Jesus, was indeed the Messiah and His Kingdom work—God’s plan— was being done.

Ravi Zacharias says “In its essence, faith is confidence in the person of Jesus Christ and in His power, so that even when His power does not serve my end, my confidence in Him remains because of who He is.”

Does our contingency plan include choosing to hang on to Jesus, to trust Him, to have unwavering faith, even when the bottom drops out?

2. Pray for each other.  Jim illustrated this point by reading us the account of the prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel with 450 prophets of Baal (fabulous account found in 1st Kings 18).  King Ahab was a terrible king and Elijah wanted him to know the one true God  so 3 1/2 years earlier he had prayed for no rain to fall. This encounter on Mount Carmel was the tipping point in that 3 1/2 year drought coming to an end.

In the New Testament, in order to remind us of the power of prayer,  James writes this about Elijah: The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for three and a half years! Then, when he prayed again, the sky sent down rain and the earth began to yield its crops. (James 5:16-18 NLT)

Blaise Pascal wrote one of my favorite quotes about prayer when he stated that “God instituted prayer to communicate to creatures the dignity of causality.” 

 Things happen when we pray.

And things happen when we don’t.

God told Ezekiel “I looked for someone who might rebuild the wall of righteousness that guards the land. I searched for someone to stand in the gap in the wall so I wouldn’t have to destroy the land, but I found no one.” (Ezekiel 22:30)  

Our intercession for each other and for the world is huge.

I read the following in my devotion this morning:

“Prayer (and fasting depending on the translation) is part of Jesus’ casting out of unclean spirits (Mark 9:29, Matthew 17:21). Why prayer? These verses about prayer and fasting are not about our holiness such that if we are worthy we can wield them to use God’s power…. No, prayer is conversation with God. Prayer helps us to attune our hearts toward God as well. It is in the midst of this form of communion with God that we hear from God and also make intercessions for the world around us. We pray for strength, insight, forgiveness, healing. We pray for the transformation of situations and for the needs and welfare of others. We pray for darkness to be lifted and for people to become free.  I absolutely believe in Holy Spirit driven calls to action. I also believe in the powerful activity of prayer that moves in ways that I don’t always see… If prayer is the method that Jesus uses to cast out the darkest forces that invade and misdirect our physical world, let us also choose prayer as a form of resistance to the powers and principalities of this world.”  Justin Coleman

Pray, pray, pray, pray, pray…if we want darkness conquered we must be people of prayer. Paul tells us that our battles are not against flesh and blood, he tells us to put on the armor of God, and he tells us when we have done that to PRAY.  (Eph. 6)  He tells us in 1st Thessalonians to pray without ceasing. Jesus reminds us  “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer,'”  (Mt 21:13a). 

 We are the temple of God (1st Corinthians 3:16) and we are living stones being built into a spiritual house (1 Peter 5:8).  WE are His houseWould our houses, our temples be recognized as houses of prayer? Is prayer part of our plan?

3. Continue in community.  Jim used the story of Lydia in the book of Acts (chapter 16)  to highlight this part of the contingency plan. He pointed out that Paul normally went to the synagogue when he entered a new city; however, on this sabbath he went to the river to pray.  While there, he visited with a group of women, and encountered Lydia, who was a worshiper of God but did not yet have a personal relationship with Jesus. She responded to Paul’s message and was baptized. So many things about this encounter are beautiful–Paul went where the Holy Spirit led him. On this occasion the Holy Spirit led him to a group of women.  Women were little more than property to the men of that day.  But to God, each woman was His image bearer. Jesus highly esteemed women when he walked the earth, and Paul was following in the footsteps of his Savior. The result of this encounter with Lydia is that not only did she come into a relationship with Christ, she came into the kingdom of his people–community. The church in Philippi was birthed out of this encounter.

Paul was already part of the kingdom of God, and he leveraged his life to bring others in. He noticed the marginalized. This is our call. All of us. Who are the marginalized in our day, and what is Christ’s desire for them? We do not have His permission to despise anyone.  He did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world (John 3:17), and we–his people– are the ones who carry this message to those who don’t yet know Him.

One caution–when we go through hard times our tendency is to want to withdraw from community, to isolate. We are not meant to go through life alone.  Seek a community that allows you be exactly who you are, exactly where you are–one that doesn’t require pretending. Seek a community that will love you into the arms of Jesus.

Is your contingency plan to stay connected to kingdom people, and bring others in?

4. Love each other.  Jim highlighted Jesus’  words in John 13 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

This may be one of the trickiest parts of the contingency plan. When we are hurt, when we are disillusioned, we want to pull away from people. Jesus doesn’t give us permission to do this, instead, he gives us godly ways to handle conflict (Mt. 5:23).

Paul encourages us to speak the truth in love. (Eph 5:14)   James reminds us that we all stumble in many ways. (James 3:2)  Peter tells us “You were cleansed from your sins when you obeyed the truth, so now you must show sincere love to each other as brothers and sisters. Love each other deeply with all your heart.” (1st Peter 1:22).

Does your plan include choosing to love?

Jim’s air traffic controllers had a contingency plan in place. When the bottom fell out and their normal system failed they followed the contingency plan.

My hope is that each piece of our spiritual contingency plan is part of our daily lives–focusing on Jesus, prayer, healthy spiritual community, and loving well–so that it is as natural to us as breathing. Then, when life falls apart, systems fail, and the bottom drops out-we hold on to Jesus, to His people and weather the storm with eyes fixed on Him.

–Luanne

As I think back over the four parts of the contingency plan that Jim laid out for us, I believe that the first and the last are paramount for us to really grab hold of. Keep our eyes on Jesus and love each other. When I put these two side by side, it reminds me of some words that Jesus spoke when He was asked which commandment is the most important. He answered:

“…You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31 NLT)

During Jesus’ ministry, He never wavered about what had to come first. He called out sin, of course, and He spoke and taught about many things. But He maintained that our primary focus as His followers was to 1. Love God, and 2. Love (all) people. This is what we’re called to. It’s always been the way to bring His Kingdom on earth. I know that Jim’s first point was to keep our eyes on Jesus, not to love Him–but I think they are one and the same. If we fix our eyes on Him, if we see Him for who He really is, we will love Him.

So the two most important commandments, according to Jesus, are the bookends to Jim’s contingency plan. I’m going to focus only on these two points here, because I believe that loving God and loving each other are what spur us on to pray for each other and to continue in community. They are part of the natural outflow of prioritizing the other two, and cannot exist without them.

Okay… Love God. Love people. 

So simple… and so hard.

One of the reasons this simple command is so hard has to do with something Jim brought up on Sunday. He used the term “expectation bias“, and I believe it can get in the way of fulfilling the call we were given (Sidenote: It is a call and it applies to all of us…) to love both God and people.

So, what is it? What is expectation bias?

Expectation is defined as: A strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future; an attitude of expectancy or hope. 

Bias is: A particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion, especially one that is preconceived or unreasoned. 

Expectation bias is explained a lot of different ways by a lot of people who are much smarter than me. One article I read defined it this way:

Having a strong belief or mindset towards a particular outcome that influences perceptions of one’s own, or others’, behavior.

If we look at the three different definitions above, it’s easy to see that expectation bias can be a slippery slope. None of it is grounded in truth. Our expectations may be grounded in truth at first; they may spring up from the hope that we have, hope that comes from our knowledge of God and His love for us as well as from Scripture. But it doesn’t take much for our expectations to move away from truth and toward a focus on self. And when expectation is paired with bias, which is often preconceived or unreasoned, based on incomplete stories or isolated experiences, it’s a dangerous combination.

So let’s look at Jim’s first point: Keep your eyes on Jesus. How could expectation bias complicate this simple concept? In the story Jim referenced about John the Baptist, John asked this question of Jesus:

 “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3 NLT)

John (and many others over the course of Jesus’ ministry) suffered from expectation bias. They expected a conquering King, not a suffering Savior. Nothing Jesus did or said lined up with their expectations of Him, even though-as Luanne wrote about above-He was fulfilling every prophecy that had been written about the coming Messiah. John’s expectations began with the prophecies from Scripture that he had learned about since childhood. His expectations started out grounded in truth. But as he grew, bits of his own ideas, his own bias, infiltrated what began as pure, hopeful expectation, and as the story unfolded and he found himself in very unfavorable circumstances, his expectation bias kept him from seeing Jesus. He had, at some point, lost sight of the real Jesus, the prophecy-fulfilling Jesus he’d grown up with, and he’d fixed his eyes on a counterfeit. He had fixed his eyes on a self-serving image of the Messiah somewhere along the journey. And we are in constant danger of doing the same thing. 

If we are going to fulfill the first and greatest commandment, we have to have our eyes fixed on the real Jesus-not the self-made version that suits us best. We can’t say we love Him if we’re not looking at the real thing. The real Jesus is found in Scripture. The real Jesus can be seen in the faces around us. The real Jesus is revealed to us in everyday moments through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. The real Jesus won’t always keep us from or get us out of crises–but He is always by our side in the midst of our suffering. We have to fix our eyes on that Jesus. If we can do that, if we can look up into the face of love Himself-all filters and expectations aside-we will love Him with all of ourselves. We just will.

When it comes to Jim’s last point, Love each other, we see expectation bias affect things a little differently. Luanne wrote this above:

“Jim highlighted Jesus’  words in John 13 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” This may be one of the trickiest parts of the contingency plan. When we are hurt, when we are disillusioned, we want to pull away from people. Jesus doesn’t give us permission to do this…”

When it comes to people, our expectations can reach all-out crazy levels. And we have so many different biases, we are probably unaware of most them. All of our expectations, in regard to other people, are rooted in selfishness. 

Um… all of them? I think so. Yes. I am sitting here trying to think of one single expectation I have of another human being that isn’t somehow linked back to me and my well-being… and I can’t find one. If you disagree, feel free to comment–I would love to be wrong about this!! But I don’t think I am. I could write example after example and dig into the roots of all of them, but I won’t do that here. I would challenge you to think about it though, and to pray through what God might be saying to you on the subject.

I’ve been studying the life of Joseph the last few weeks. Not Mary’s Joseph. The Joseph who was daddy’s favorite-the one with the beautiful coat of many colors… the dreamer. That Joseph. He went through some stuff. We could definitely say that he experienced a crisis or two… His circumstances were beyond unfavorable from the time his brothers sold him into slavery until the dream God had given him was realized in his life a couple of decades later. He was betrayed by those closest to him. He was sold into slavery. Falsely accused. Imprisoned. Forgotten. Alone. And yet… We never see expectation bias play out in the way Joseph interacted with those around him. And years later, when his brothers repented of their sin against him, Joseph’s response was:

You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. No, don’t be afraid. I will continue to take care of you and your children.” So he reassured them by speaking kindly to them. (Genesis 50:20-21 NLT)

When we’ve been hurt, mistreated, let down-and we all have-our expectation bias will grow out of control if we let it. If we don’t keep our eyes on Jesus, attach our hearts to His word, His truth, our minds and hearts will run wild with fear, conspiracies, stories we’ve created out of our pain. Joseph could have found himself in the midst of a bitter, resentful web of expectation bias. But he didn’t. I think it might be because he had a contingency plan. He knew His God and he kept his eyes, his heart, his mind, his strength firmly fixed on Him. And because He did this, because He loved God most, he also loved others. And he made accommodation for their shortcomings. He chose to love anyway, to move toward people anyway, to draw those who had betrayed him back to himself anyway… I see such a picture of Jesus in Joseph’s story. It’s what Jesus does for us. It’s what he asks us to do for others. Ann Voskamp writes this in her book Be the Gift,

I am what I love and I will love you like Jesus, because of Jesus, through the strength of Jesus. I will love when I’m not loved back. I will love when I’m hurt and disappointed and betrayed and inconvenienced and rejected. I simply will love, no expectations, no conditions, no demands. Love is not always agreement with someone, but it is always sacrifice for someone.

Loving each other means laying aside our expectation bias and moving toward people anyway. We can only love each other if we fix our eyes on the Jesus who loves us perfectly first. And if we fix our eyes on Him and love others, we will pray for each other and we will continue in community.

Contingency plans exist for the crisis. They’re in place for when the unexpected happens. When we find ourselves in crisis, we have to hang onto, “…but God intended it all for good…” He knows what we’re going through. He has a plan. Do we?

–Laura

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A Balanced Life: Re-prioritize

Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,”says the Lord Almighty.

“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’

 “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.

“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’

“In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”  (Malachi 3:7-10)

On Sunday, we heard the final installment of our series, A Balanced Life. It was a summation of all that we’ve learned over these last six weeks as well as a charge to check our priorities. Pastor John put before us five ways we spend our money and the order in which we often do so. The list is: Spend. Pay debt. Pay taxes. Save. Give. This list may shuffle around a bit for each of us, but let’s assume the first and last priorities listed match for the majority of us. If that’s the case, our priorities indicate a “me first” mentality rather than a “God first” mentality.

Many of us live this way. The people God was speaking to in the Malachi passage above were living this way. They hoarded their best, took care of themselves, and gave God their leftovers.

We have a tendency to do the very same thing.

It may start small–the utility bills were high one month, and the paycheck was only big enough to cover them, the rent and a few groceries. So we didn’t give that month. We didn’t even save. We just did our best to take care of the most pressing needs. We had every intention of getting back on track the following month. But the next month presented with unexpected medical bills and the kids needed new shoes. So giving took a back seat once again. Before too long, budgeting for giving kind of fell off the spreadsheet… and even when income increased, our priorities didn’t change. We faintly  heard God calling us to come back, to return to His way, but we found ourselves saying, as God’s people said in the verses above, “How are we to return?”

This is a hypothetical story, but I have to own that my own life has mirrored the story more than once. The needs seem so pressing… What will happen if we don’t take care of those necessities first? God knows our struggle with trust and our inclination toward controlling our own lives. So He challenges us to take Him at His word… He says, “Test me in this, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” 

Jesus issues a similar challenge hundreds of years later, saying, So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”. (Matthew 6:31-33)

God is asking us to take Him at His word–to try it His way. And see what happens. The God of Creation–Maker of our every cell, Giver of our every breath–tells us to put Him to the test. His grace and patience with our selfish, stubborn, wandering hearts leaves me without words… Once again, as we’ve seen so many times, He gives us a choice. Try it His way–because He has so much more for each of us. Not only financially but in everything, His plan is to prosper us, to provide for us, to expand our territory… for His Kingdom’s sake. And this is where our hearts betray us… We say our hearts belong to God… We’ve “given our hearts to Jesus”. We sing the words “You have my heart” during worship services.

But does He, really? Does God have our hearts?

Pastor John said on Sunday, “Whatever has our hearts, we resource. We invest in and value those things”.

If we say that God has our hearts, but we don’t resource or invest in His Kingdom, we deceive ourselves.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25) 

If we aren’t doing what God says, we can’t say that He has our hearts. It’s a hard word. But there’s no way to sugarcoat it to make it easier to swallow. We either live “me first” or “God first”. There is no in between. It can’t be both. We serve, feed, and invest in one or the other. Period. This is about so much more than money-but it has to include our finances. If it were only about our time, our gifts, our talents, I would feel a little better about saying that my life evidences that God has my heart. For me, those things are easier, although, I still find myself utterly selfish much of the time. But when it comes to my finances? I fall well short of trusting God with my finances the way that He asks us to. This series has held up a mirror that has revealed, in my life, a need to re-prioritize.

I want to order my life the way that John laid out for us at the end of his message, the way our Savior modeled perfectly for us: Give. Save. Live. Jesus gave up Heaven and put on skin to come to us. And then He gave His life in order to save us. He saved us so that we could live-not only in eternity with Him someday, but here and now. And His desire for us in the here and now is to live His way. He wants to have our hearts so that we will willingly give all that we have and all that we are and leverage it all to bring His Kingdom to earth. So that in our giving of ourselves, souls will be saved and people will live. This is the way to honor God with our whole lives. May He find us faithful to live His way. May we not simply say that He has our hearts-may our lives bear fruit that proves it.

–Laura

Laura wrote above: If we aren’t doing what God says, we can’t say that He has our hearts. It’s a hard word. But there’s no way to sugarcoat it to make it easier to swallow. We either live “me first” or “God first”. There is no in between.

There is no in between.

We have the choice with every decision we make to choose the principles of the kingdom of heaven, or the principles of the kingdom of earth.  The principles of the kingdom of heaven will always be God first and others focused. The kingdom of earth will always be me first and self focused. God has clearly shown us in His word what “God first” living looks like, and also what “me first” living looks like.  “Me first” living always indicates a lack of trusting God to know what’s best.

“Me first” led to Eve’s taking Satan’s bait in the garden–When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. (Gen. 3:6) She wanted what looked good to her, and what she thought God was withholding from her.

“Me first” led to King David not going out to war in the season that kings went to war, and during that leisure time when he saw Bathsheba bathing on her roof, he used his power to take advantage of her which led to pregnancy, which led to the murder of her husband, and the child did not survive. (2 Sam. 11)  King David was thinking “me first” from the moment he chose not to go to war with his men, and all the way through that tragic story.

“Me first” was the attitude of “the rich fool” as he built bigger barns to store all the stuff that he planned to use for himself–and then he died. (Luke 12: 16-21).

“Me first” always has hard consequences, yet “me first” is the fallen condition of all of us. How do we fight it?

Author Daniel Hill, in his book White Awake writes of the one-degree rule. He says: In aviation there’s a principle called the one-degree rule: a tiny error in direction can make a major difference in the final destination of a flight…(Hill transitions the one-degree principle into the story of the prodigal son and says this about the older brother) though he dutifully followed the house rules, his obedience wasn’t flowing from a grateful heart. Instead he was driven by his own selfish agenda. Though this distinction was difficult to detect from the outside, it eventually showed itself in the cumulative toll that it took on his soul. By the time it bubbled to the surface, the elder brother was marked by a combination of anger, joylessness, judgement, and most sadly, an inability to internalize the love of the Father.”

Sarah Young’s January 30th entry in her beautiful devotional book Jesus Calling begins with this phrase: Worship Me only. Whatever occupies your mind the most becomes your god.

I believe both Hill and Young give us clues as to how to fight “me first” mentality. In order to internalize the love of the Father, in order to worship Him only, in order to stay on track, there are things we must pay attention to.

First, we must know that we are loved by God. As we spend time with Him and experience His love, we grow to love Him in return–just like babies grow to love their parents in response to the love they receive. Jesus tells us that the first and greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind‘; (Luke 10:27).  Truly, we are not capable of loving God this way, but we can ask the Holy Spirit to help us love God the way God desires to be loved–it’s a prayer He loves to answer! When we love Him this way, the temptation to worship lesser gods fades.

Loving God with our minds means that we allow Him to search us in order to help us recognize those one-degree thoughts and choices that lead us astray.

I’ve always found the apostle Paul’s wording in 2 Corinthians 4:4 interesting when he says that “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers….”  

I truly believe that part of living a balanced life is praying Psalm 139:23-24 every single day: Search me, O God, and know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts, see if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.  Then we need to sit with Him and let Him bring things up so that we can deal with them–repent of them.

The word translated “repent” in our Bibles is the Greek word “metanoia”, which literally means “changed mind”. To live in harmony with God, we must allow our minds to be in tune with His heart, His ways.

Romans 12:2 makes this so clear: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.  

Paul also tells us in 2 Corinthians 10:5 to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.  Again, interesting phrasing. When someone is taken captive, they are typically interrogated as the captor seeks to discover things about the enemy’s tactics.

I believe that even those of us who are saved can have our minds blinded when we choose to live in unbelief or in the kingdom of earth with its priorities. We must allow the Holy Spirit to show us those areas where we are going astray. When He brings things up, we must interrogate our thought process–what is it revealing about what we believe? Is it a “me first” thought that is revealing an area in our lives where we don’t trust God, or don’t want to live according to the principles of His kingdom? I would say that most often the answer to that question is “yes”. So then, we have a choice. Do we continue with our one-degree deviations which will get us to the place the Israelites were when they asked Malachi  “How are we to return?”, or do we repent–change our minds–renew our minds–and line up our minds, our lives- with the kingdom of heaven?

God asks for our entire lives–everything we are, everything we have. He tells us to seek FIRST His kingdom and His righteousness, and tells us that He will take care of all the rest.  Do we believe Him?  He told the Israelites through the prophet Malachi: Test me in this…and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” 

He wants to bless us, but He wants to bless us for the sake of His glory, His kingdom, and His renown. He wants us to come after Him because of love, not because we are trying to manipulate Him into giving us stuff–if we want Him for the blessings, that is still “me first”, but if we want Him because He is the love of our lives, it’s about Him.

Everything we have is from Him and for Him. That includes our finances. Do we live like that’s true?  Do we trust Him to be a God of His word? Do we trust Him to take care of us if we seek His kingdom first–if we give to Him first? Are we willing to test Him and see if the floodgates will open when we do life His way?  What if those floodgates of blessing aren’t material possessions at all, but they are lives of people saved for eternity because God’s people chose to live and give God’s way? What blessing could be better?

“Me first” or “God first”? The choice is ours.

–Luanne

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